A semi-fictional short story written for the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust:
On the Island
A Mary Miller story by Paul Stephens
Don smiled as he approached the counter. “Don and Mary Miller,” he said to the blonde-haired woman behind it, “We’re the raffle winners, come for our prize.”
“Ah yes, the lucky ones,” the woman replied, turning to a young man seated at a table nearby, “Find Andy will you, tell him the people are here for the trip to the Island.” She turned back to Don. “Not many get to go out there now, I haven’t been myself since it closed. You’re part of the privileged few.”
Mary managed a weak smile. This wasn’t, in all honesty, her idea of a perfect Saturday morning, especially as she’d been on late shift the previous night, but Don had been so keen for them to go that she hadn’t had the heart to say no.
“I’m Lesley,” said the blonde woman as Don went to admire the view across to the Island, “Husband dragging you along, is he? I was like that at first, but look at me now – Queen of the Pier View Information Centre, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, all year round.”
Mary’s smile became broader. Most of the people she met in her work were wary or hostile; it was a holiday of sorts just to meet some friendly strangers.
“Is it that obvious?” she said, “No, Don’s set his heart on it and I’m happy enough to tag along, provided it’s not too dangerous.”
It was a big proviso. Unlike Lesley or Don, Mary had been out to Birnbeck Island since it had closed, but that had been on duty during her days in uniform, nearly fifteen years ago when there was still a safe route across the Pier. These days the police set foot there only with authorisation from Division, and a helicopter ready to winch them off. She’d refused this trip flat until Don had made enquiries and confirmed that they’d be going via the causeway at low tide, not risking the Pier. Even so, the place was a death trap; why Don was so keen to go there was beyond her, but then so was his endless devotion to Chelsea FC.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be safe enough with Andy in charge,” said Lesley, “He won’t be long. Would you like a tea or coffee?”
Mary waved the offer away. The trip was scheduled to last for two hours, and she doubted if there’d be any toilet facilities on the Island, at least not for women. She looked around the room, out to the view along the Pier just below it, read the posters advertising the work of the Birnbeck Regeneration Trust. The little black-and-white building was usually closed when she came up to the Terrace, and she’d always wanted to go inside. A bad but tempting thought occurred to her: now she had been inside, so perhaps she could make this mission accomplished, head off into town and pick Don up when – if – he returned.
“Nervous, Love?” Don said solicitously, squeezing her hand, “No need - they’ve got the tides all worked out, no danger of us getting cut off. I can’t wait myself.”
Mary looked at her husband’s face, saw the boyish excitement. No, she couldn’t just walk off; there were times when a woman had to stand by her man, even if it did mean getting mud on her trainers. “I’m fine,” she replied, “Just wondering if I should have brought some sunscreen.”
Don was checking the cloud cover through the window when a man came in wearing a hard hat and hi-vis vest, carrying more of the same, plus, Mary noted with disquiet, a length of rope with a rock-climber’s fastening-on clip at one end. Seeing her expression, the man smiled.
“Don’t worry, it’s just to help us scramble down a short stretch of rock, not really necessary in the dry but I always bring it anyway.” He held out his hand. “I’m Andy, I’ll be taking you over today.”
“Don Miller,” said Don, shaking it, “and this is my wife Mary.”
The pleasantries completed, Andy got down to business. He seemed to be taking it all very seriously, which Mary considered a plus point given where they were going.
“No need to wear the hats yet, but once we’re on the Island keep them on at all times please. There’s debris everywhere and even on a still day a sudden gust can blow something off a roof. Have either of you done anything like this before?”
“Mary has – she’s a police officer,” said Don. “CID – brains squad – Sergeant too, but they still have to keep trained up, don’t you Love?” Mary could have clocked him for denying her the option of non-disclosure, but the pride in his voice drove the irritation away.
“I have been out there actually,” she said, “but it was a long time ago, when the RNLI station was still operating.”
“You’ll find it very different now, I’m afraid,” said Andy, “There’s been some rapid deterioration in the past five years or so, especially in the main buildings and the North Jetty, and in areas of the decking too. Last winter’s storms were the final straw.”
So if a flying roof tile didn’t get them they’d fall down a hole in the floor – great. It was the holiday season, Weston-super-Mare was busy and the DI hadn’t been happy about his DS ‘galavanting off’ onto a dangerous offshore location, reminding her in detail of the budget implications if he had to bring in temporary cover while she recuperated in hospital. She was beginning to see his point. Before she could express her concern, however, a familiar voice came from the doorway.
“Mary, Don! Have you come for the car boot sale? Excellent! The Regeneration Trust needs all the support it can get.”
“Hello Michael,” said Don, turning round, “No, we’re not just here for the car boot – we’re going over to the Island, guided tour. First prize in the Spring Raffle!”
Mary smiled, the same thin smile she’d given to Lesley earlier. She hadn’t mentioned the trip to Michael Slade when she’d spoken to him on the phone a few days previously, partly because she didn’t want to make him jealous, partly because she was still hoping it might be cancelled. Rather touchingly, his reaction now seemed to be pleasure at their good fortune.
“Oh, that’s fantastic!” he cried, “You lucky things! I’d give anything to go over to the Island - I bought fifteen tickets in that raffle and got nowhere!”
Don had bought one, thought Mary, in the pub, half time in the Champions League final. Sometimes luck could be cruel. But suddenly a light bulb came on in her head, the same one which, she modestly liked to think, made her a good detective, able to quickly formulate strategies in field situations. Walking away was one thing, but selflessly giving up her place to someone whose greatest desire in life was to visit the Island - that was something else.
“You go instead of me, Michael,” she said, “I know how much it would mean to you, and I’ve been there before anyway. And you can tell Don all about the steamers docking and everything.” She’d remembered the conversation she’d had with Michael up on the Terrace, one beautiful Spring evening, what seemed like an age ago now. Reminding him of it was a masterstroke, though she said it herself.
In a few seconds she saw Michael’s expression run the full gamut of emotions, from elation to despair then back to a more comfortable acceptance as he made up his mind.
“No Mary, it’s a wonderful offer but I can’t take it. This is your prize and Don’s, you must have it. Go to the Island and enjoy every minute of your time there. You won’t want for information – you couldn’t have a better guide than Andy here, he knows every inch of the place, and its history. But yes, also remember what I said about the steamers docking, the sirens sounding, the men throwing ropes to the landing crews, the evening trippers over from Cardiff enjoying a few hours leisure after a hard day’s work. Out there you’ll be among them, walking the terraces with them. Hear their echoes.”
Through the corner of her eye Mary saw the relief on Don’s face, and knew she was beaten. It had been worth a try.
“OK, I’ve got my camera with me, I’ll bring back lots of pictures and email them to you,” she said, “and I’m sure there’ll be another lottery soon.”
“Ah,” said Andy doubtfully, “not necessarily. We had a devil of a job getting dispensation for this one. Normally we’re only allowed to take people over who are actively working there on behalf of the Trust.”
Nice one, thought Mary, but then Andy probably hadn’t been trained in Basic Psychology of Incident Management.
“Photos will be great,” said Michael, “but don’t spend too much time behind the camera. It’s much more important that you soak up the atmosphere, let Birnbeck speak to you, see it as it was in its heyday as a place of pleasure for the working man and woman and their children. Remember, Mary – hear their echoes.”
“There – that’s the rock done with,” said Andy as Mary touched down on the shingle beach, “Like I said, the rope’s just to help you keep steady.” Mary had made the descent partly on her backside, glad that she’d found her old pair of jeans in the back of the wardrobe but annoyed that her old trainers hadn’t been with them. Andy’s glance at her newish white ones told her that they probably weren’t the ideal choice for what lay ahead.
The Island was just 300m from the information centre if you went along the Pier, but that was no longer an option, so they’d had to take the long way round, up the road towards Sand Bay then down a short path, including rockface, to the beach. Next they had to negotiate more rocks, small but in places covered in seaweed, to reach the causeway of loose dry stones that led across to the Island. In between the rocks was mud – thick, slimy and of indeterminate depth, although Andy assured them there was no danger of being consumed by it, something that could – and did – happen at the other end of Weston Bay. By the time they reached the causeway Mary’s trainers were newish no more, but she’d been expecting that. Don could pay for the replacements.
The centre of the causeway was a good six feet above the water, but they all knew how quickly that could change. The tidal range there could be over forty feet, the second highest in the world, and once it started coming in, it came in fast; in less than two hours the causeway would be engulfed, strong currents running across it, taking whatever was on it away to end up, lifeless, anywhere from Brean to Portishead. Mary checked her watch.
Down here the height of the Pier was apparent; it towered over them, fifty feet to their left, as they made their way along the causeway. The small stones dug into Mary’s feet through her soft trainer soles; it was all right for Don, who was wearing his work boots. It was still a relatively easy walk though, and soon they were at the bottom of the slipway that led up to the Island.
“We’re lucky, the slipway’s dry today,” said Andy, “treacherous when it’s wet.” He unlocked the big metal gate that barred the way at the top, swung it round. “We do what we can to keep people out, for their own sakes. I doubt if any of them realise just how dangerous it is here now.” Seeing the doubt on Mary face, he smiled. “It’s OK if you keep away from the high-risk areas though. We’ll do the safety briefing first, then I’ll take you round the main buildings.”
They went through the gateway, round the corner of an almost-intact outbuilding, and found themselves in an open space leading directly onto the Pier. The Pier itself was unguarded, nothing preventing them from walking onto it, but the warped decking, missing planks, and glimpses of the rocks below, told them just how bad an idea that would be – and that was without taking into account the condition of the ironwork underneath. The narrow walkway installed by the RNLI - the one Mary had walked over fifteen years previously - looked in much better condition, but it was some time since the Lifeboat crews had felt it safe enough to use, and the Trust evidently felt the same way.
“We can’t go inside the buildings, I’m afraid,” said Andy, beginning his safety briefing, “too much debris on the floor, too much still to come down, and in some cases the walls are in danger of collapse. Keep six feet away from them please, as we don’t know what may topple next.”
Mary was disappointed; seeing inside the buildings had been the main attraction for her, although from what she could see of the large building at the other side of the open space, there would be very little to see except a deep pile of debris.
“Keep off the concrete decking on the south side too,” Andy continued, “the pillars underneath are beginning to crumble, and the deck itself. On the tarmac surface, watch out for drainage holes that have lost their covers – put a foot down one of those and it’ll be a broken ankle and the air ambulance having to use up expensive fuel to come and get you.” He sounded like the DI, although she was sure it was good advice.
Don, however, clearly wasn’t going to let the list of potential pitfalls dampen his enthusiasm.
“When I was a kid this bit used to be full of stalls and fairground rides,” he said, eyes alight, “you couldn’t move some Sundays. Course my mum and dad could remember the days of the White Funnel steamers going between here and Cardiff, went on them a few times they said. They stopped running when I was still a baby though.”
Mary thought of Don as a baby, and smiled. His romper suit had probably had ‘Don Miller Heating’ on the chest and oil stains down the front, like the man-sized romper suits he wore to work today.
“All gone now,” said Don pensively, looking around the empty space.
“There’s been some clearing out in recent years,” said Andy, “Just in case anyone actually does come up with a workable plan to redevelop it.”
“Do you think anyone will?”
“Anything’s possible, given enough determination – plus a large amount of money, of course. Come on – I’ll show you round.”
Andy led them to the left of the main building, close to the concrete terrace which extended on pillars out over the lower slopes of the island. As he’d said, it was decaying – visibly, with one or two big holes where the rocks underneath showed through. Not decaying as much, however, as the building to their right, which Mary remembered now as the main pavilion.
Pete Cox, Mary’s internet-savvy DC, had found a website showing pictures from an unofficial visit to the Island a few years earlier, and the difference between the state of the pavilion’s interior then and now shocked her. Then it had still been recognisably a public room, its roof and floor largely intact, even the staircase to the minstrel gallery still in place. Now it was open to the sky, the floor buried deep under the debris of the collapsed roof, just a few timbers left aloft in the corners. No longer a place for Michael’s echoes to fly around, just a pile of ruined building materials.
Mary took her camera from her bag, positioned herself just outside the six-foot exclusion zone, zoomed in through a gaping hole where a double door had been. Perhaps she shouldn’t send Michael these pictures; even his romanticism might not survive seeing the state of the place now. She took the camera away from her eye. On the first of her official trips here, fresh out of her constable’s probation, she’d gone into the pavilion to help arrest three youths who’d been spotted going over the fence onto the Pier. It was a good job they’d been called; the youths had come armed with bottles of barbecue lighter fluid, clearly intending to ‘give Weston something to watch’, as one had put it. The fluid had earned each of them six months’ youth custody, and the buildings had survived – only, it seemed, to suffer a slow death as the elements destroyed them.
Still, buildings died all the time, nowhere more so than in Weston-super-Mare. In truth she wasn’t a great one for Heritage; police officers tended to be too busy dealing with the here and now to worry about the past, unless it came in an evidence bag or CRO check. Best to show some interest though. She turned back to Don and Andy.
“What sort of things went on in there?” she asked. Apart from youths trying to burn it down, that is.
“Bit of everything,” replied Don, taking up the mantle of Tour Guide, “Dances, concerts, tea room – there was a snooker table too, although you could never find anyone to hire you out a cue. They were a bit short-staffed towards the end, couldn’t afford the wages.”
The usual story then, of fewer visitors meaning less spent on the place, meaning even fewer visitors and round the circle again. Not helped, no doubt, by competition from the increasingly glitzy Grand Pier, on the main beach right in the centre of town. It must have been a depressing last few years.
They moved on, alongside the pavilion veranda with its ornate cast-iron pillars still in surprisingly good condition, then keeping well away from a stone wall which, Andy informed them, was bowing outwards and liable to collapse without warning. They were approaching the seaward edge of the Island now, lined by another stretch of wall, concrete this time, the sole remnant of whatever building it had belonged to.
“Sinclair C5 racing!” said Don suddenly, “It was just over there – 50p for three minutes. We used to love it, but we got banned for crashing into each other like dodgems.” Mary could vaguely remember what a Sinclair C5 was – a plastic-bodied trike powered by car batteries – but hadn’t realised that some of them had made their way to Birnbeck Island. She could imagine Don and his mates tearing round the track – Don’s sister Tina too, if her on-road driving was anything to go by. She smiled.
They rounded the corner, headed towards the north side of the island. An elevated walkway, in ugly brown concrete, came to a sudden end above them, offering a ten-foot drop onto the deck for anyone who didn’t look where they were going.
“Don’t worry, we’ve got it fenced off a good few feet before the end,” said Andy, “anyone who strayed up there would be stopped before they fell off.” Mary smiled again. He seemed to assume that, as a police officer, she’d be properly concerned for the Health and Safety of any trespassers. Ten minutes in the uniform locker room and he’d probably hear a very different view.
From the north side they could see the sweep of Sand Bay, Sand Point at its furthest tip. They could also see the North Jetty, the most dramatically ruined part of the Island. The main structure was still intact, but the deck had collapsed between its supports, and now rose and fell like drunken waves reaching out from the shore. Where the jetty joined the Island even the structure was gone, the deck left splintered and hanging as if a bomb had hit it, although the impact had actually come from Storm Frank, barrelling up the Bristol Channel from the Atlantic the previous winter. At the far end of the jetty stood a shed, windowless with its doors hanging open. Mary was reminded of films she’d seen of atomic bomb tests, the interiors of buildings swept out by the blast waves, leaving just the shells.
Don, however, seemed more interested in a wall across which ‘GENTLEMEN’ was still picked out in concrete lettering.
“Emptied straight into the sea, no doubt!” he said, chuckling to himself.
“Pretty much so, yes,” replied Andy, seeming to fully appreciate the humorous implications of this.
“Different world, eh? Wouldn’t get away with it these days.”
“No, you’d be in trouble for throwing your dishwater over the side, let alone raw sewage.”
They carried on, the men seemingly happy now that raw sewage had assumed its rightful place among the topics of conversation. They were soon back at the open space by the Pier entrance, Don and Andy by now engrossed in a discussion about the cost and feasibility of laying a proper sewer, probably pumped and with suitable backflow protection, under the Pier decking back to the mainland.
“Would it be OK if I went back along there for a moment?” Mary interrupted, pointing towards the north terrace, “I’d like to get a couple more pictures.”
“Yes, that’s fine,” said Andy, “I’m sure I can trust a police officer to keep within the safe areas.”
“I will,” said Mary, and left them to it. She was quickly back at the far end of the island, looking out at Flat Holm, appreciably nearer than it appeared from the shore. This, in truth, was what she preferred – to explore alone, to let things sink in without the distraction of conversation or even the commentary of a knowledgeable tour guide. She walked slowly back towards the Pier, under the concrete walkway, along the north side of the ruined pavilion, where the building had been extended out over the veranda so that its red brick walls fitted tightly within the cast-iron pillars. This was where the photo of the pavilion’s interior on the unofficial website had been taken from. Looking in through an empty window frame, she strained to remember the picture’s details, but they were irrelevant now anyway. That place had gone.
She turned away, went over to the terrace wall, tested it for solidity then leaned on it, gazing at the north jetty. The rise and fall of the decking reminded her of something – ‘roller coaster’ came to mind but it wasn’t steep enough for that. No, it was something else, and then it came to her – the Waltzer, the gently undulating fairground ride her father had said he used to take her mother on when they were courting. “It scared her, so she’d let me put my arm around her,” he’d say, adding “that was the idea, of course” and smiling at the memory.
Mary smiled too. Her parents had visited Weston-super-Mare, before she was born; she had a photo of them on the beach, by the donkey rides. Perhaps they’d come up here too, gone into the pavilion when it still served teas and there was someone on hand to hire out the snooker cues. She walked back over to it, looked in at the piles of debris, tried to imagine it full of people instead, day trippers and locals, out for a Sunday afternoon or a warm summer evening.
And suddenly she could imagine it. She caught sight of an old organ keyboard, decrepit now, just a few keys left, and saw it restored to its glory, heard it playing, saw the couples dancing – her mother and father, newly married, waltzing gracefully across the floor. No, it would have been the pop charts through loudspeakers by the time they’d have gone there, but her grandparents perhaps? She looked along the terrace, and she could see them all promenading, the Victorians in their formal dress, her grandfather’s generation in their demob suits, her parents in the terrible fashions of the 1970s, a teenage Don and his mates, out after work for a go on the Sinclair C5s.
She turned back towards the North Jetty, and she could see the steamer coming in to dock from Cardiff, hear the siren sounding, see the men throwing ropes to the landing crews, activity everywhere. People streaming off the boat onto the Island, enjoying short respites from hard lives down the mines in Wales, on the land and in the factories on the English side, away at the wars, waiting to see if their loved ones would come back from them, some knowing that they wouldn’t. She saw them, from all the years, together on the terrace. She was among them, and she heard their echoes.
“Mary? Come on, Love, we’ve got to go. The tide’ll be turning in ten minutes and we don’t want to get caught out here.” It was Don, calling her from the clock tower by the Pier entrance.
“OK, just coming.” Now she understood heritage; it was keeping their place alive, not letting it crumble back into the sea, even if meant demolishing what was here and putting something new in its place. She took one last look around, waved them goodbye.
Don held on to the rope, reached down for his wife’s hand.
“You all right Love? Shame about your trainers.”
“It’s fine,” Mary replied, finding her foothold in the little rock face, “I’ll get some new ones.”
Back at the information centre Michael was waiting for them.
“Ah, the intrepid explorers return!” he said, “how did it go?”
“Great,” said Don, “no problems getting over or back – apart from a bit of mud, that is.” He leaned forwards, lowered his voice. “It’s in a terrible state out there now, Michael, most of the roofs are gone. I can’t see how a lot of it can be saved.”
“Oh dear,” said Michael, like a concerned relative, “I thought that might be the case.”
“Yes well,” replied Don, “the weather will have its way, won’t it? Anyone fancy a tea?”
Mary sat down next to Michael at the table. Through the window, along the Pier, she could see the Island where she’d stood just a short time ago. It looked empty now.
“How about you, Mary? Was it worth the effort?”
“Definitely, although it would have been even better if I hadn’t ruined my trainers.” She lifted one foot and looked ruefully at her mud-encrusted shoe.
“Ah, but trainers can be replaced, this very afternoon, by means of a quick trip into town. Finding a solution for Birnbeck will be rather more difficult, I think, not to mention a lot more expensive.”
She smiled. “That’s certainly true.”
She looked up, and saw Don coming back from the counter.
“Teas are on their way,” he said, “I’m putting a tenner in the box – do you want to put anything, Love?”
Mary nodded, found her purse, opened it and took out a blue £20 note. Don looked impressed.
“Generous contribution – Trev and Rose will be pleased. You must have enjoyed it more than I thought.”
“Generous indeed, Mary,” said Michael as Don went back to the counter.
“It would be a shame to lose it,” she replied, “I just hope they can do something.”
Michael looked at her, that blank-eyed Michael Slade stare that always made her feel he was seeing into her thoughts.
“It’s a bit more than just that though, isn’t it Mary? You heard the echoes, didn’t you, all the people who were there?”
She looked out of the window again, across to the Island. For a moment she thought she heard the steamer’s siren, but it was a lorry sounding its horn on the road above them.
“Yes Michael,” she said, “Something like that.”
© Paul Stephens 2016