He could still hear the noise.
John Finch laid back on the sun lounger, a baseball cap pulled forward to protect him from the worst of the heat, his ears still assailed by the sound.
The ghetto blaster from further down the beach continued to thud away with its monotonous rhythm.
What kind of music did they call it Finch tried to remember? Rap wasn't it? Crap more like.
it had been the same on the beach for the last four days. He'd eaten breakfast then strolled out into the sand only to find that the sun loungers had been taken by other tourists many of who, he was positive, weren't even staying at the hotel. It was a private beach and, as far as Finch was concerned, if he was paying the prices the hotel was charging to stay there then the least he could ask for was to be spared the infestation of riff-raff which invaded the beach daily. They trooped on in their multi-coloured shirts and shorts kicking footballs about, shouting and bellowing to each other while the girls paraded their flabby white thighs and tried to look attractive while many of them looked more like beached whales.
Most came from self-catering places thought Finch with scorn. They couldn't afford to stay at the hotel he was staying at and, if they weren't staying there then they shouldn't be allowed on to the beach.
He got up and pulled the lounger further away, peering for some secluded spot on the beach, away from the noisy frolicking of the other sunbathers. There must be somewhere he could go for a bit of solitude. After all, he'd come away for a rest, a chance to re-charge his batteries after the divorce. A chance to be alone. He spent all his working life mixing with other people, most of whom he didn't like anyway. He didn't want to spend his holiday with other people too. At breakfast he nodded at the other diners should one of them venture to speak but that was as far as it went. Finch didn't want some half-wit couple tagging along with him burbling on about how they couldn't get used to the foreign food and then showing him photos of their house, their dog or their children. He came on holiday for a rest, if he wanted to make friends he'd join a country club.
Kath had said that was one of the reasons she'd wanted a divorce in the first place, because of his unsociability. Finch had told her he didn't like her friends (he wasn't that keen on most of his own). He tired easily of their aimless ramblings about work, about what went on amongst the other secretaries, about who was sleeping with who. It held no interest for him. To Finch they were superficial and he had no desire to find out if there was any depth to them.
Besides which he had his own business to run.
He'd been director of an electronics firm for the past three years and had seen its profits increase every fiscal year. He hoped they weren't making too many mistakes in his absence. Finch knew that he himself needed this holiday (he hadn't taken one for five years) but he also disliked having to trust anyone with his company while he was gone. In fact, there wasn't much that Finch did like.
Even this holiday was beginning to turn into a bit of a disaster.
He'd sat out in the sun for too long on the first day and suffered rather bad sun burn. He'd spent a painful night, tossing and turning, trying to find a comfortable position to sleep, sweating because the air conditioning wasn't working properly. He complained to the management the following morning and they'd given him another room. The following day on the beach he'd spent most of the time beneath one of the beach parasols (when they weren't being monopolised by the self-catering brigade) and now, the sunburn was barely uncomfortable. Apart from the skin which was beginning to peel off.
Finch looked down at his forearm and pulled a thin strip of flesh from his arm, tossing it into the sand beside the lounger.
Further down the beach the pounding of the ghetto blaster seemed to be getting louder.
Finch grunted to himself, got to his feet and pulled his lounger along the beach, leaving furrows in the sand.
Up ahead there were some palm trees, beyond them he could see another stretch of sand. It appeared to be deserted.
Finch smiled and trekked on, the racket behind him gradually diminishing.
He passed beneath the shade of some trees then emerged onto the other stretch of beach which, he saw, was in fact, barely fifty feet long. But, there was no one else there. He had it to himself. No ghetto blasters, no football kicking yobs, no scarlet skinned mounds of blubber crammed into swimsuits one size too small for them.
He set up the lounger and lay back, breathing a sigh of relief.
From now on, he decided, this would be his spot. He'd leave the lounger here too. They were meant to be returned every evening and a couple of hotel staff usually walked the beach taking back any left out in the open but, Finch reasoned, if he hid this one well enough they probably wouldn't find it. The part of the beach he was on was all but hidden from the main stretch. At last, after four days of enduring the purgatory of other holiday makers he had the peace he sought.
As he lay back he pulled at another piece of peeling skin on his chest, watching as it came away like opaque cling-film. He balled it up between his fingers and dropped it into the sand beside him.
The sea lapped gently against the shore, the slight breeze bringing a welcome respite from the searing rays of the sun.
Finch picked off some more flesh from his chest then from his stomach.
The piece on his shoulder came away with a dull tearing sound and he was surprised at how large it was.
He held the flap of thin flesh before him, glancing at the patch of pink skin beneath.
All of the skin he tossed into the sand beside the lounger.
He wondered briefly what his ex-wife was doing now?
Ex-wife. It had a pleasing ring to it.
He pulled another piece of skin from his arm.
She was probably telling her friends how glad she was to be away from him. What a miserable so-and-so he was. Perhaps if they'd had children the marriage would have lasted, she'd said to him on more than one occasion. But, children didn't interest him. They were an expensive addition to any family, even one as well off as his. Besides he didn't like them. As babies all they did was scream and fill their nappies, as toddlers they blundered around breaking things and, once they got older all they wanted was money.
He pulled more skin from his body, this time from his thigh.
No. He didn't want kids, he didn't need kids.
He winced in pain as one piece of skin came away somewhat reluctantly. Finch frowned as he saw a tiny drop of blood well up from beneath the translucent sheath of flesh.
He pulled his baseball cap down over his eyes and settled down for a sleep but the sun was too warm and, besides, his body was itching from the heat and from where he'd peeled away so much skin.
He decided to have a swim, glancing around to ensure he was alone still on the beach. He didn't want any company and he certainly didn't want anyone stealing his sun lounger.
Finch padded across the sand and out into the water, pleased at how warm it was and how soothing on his body.
He swam out quite a way, the currents were weak and he was a strong swimmer.
More than thirty minutes elapsed before he decided to head back into shore.
As he swam in slowly he peered ahead of him.
There was someone lying on his sun lounger.
Jesus Christ, what a bloody nerve, he thought. He'd left it for half an hour. This was the last straw.
He quickened the pace of his strokes, stalking out of the water and up the beach towards the figure who occupied the lounger.
Finch could not make out the features but he could see it was a man, roughly the same size as himself.
Whoever he was he was going to get apiece of Finch's mind. How dare he?
Finch rubbed his eyes as he drew nearer, still unable to see the man's features.
What he could see however, was that the man's body was wrinkled. Mottled too, pink and white as if he'd been subjected to sunburn but his skin was flaky.
Finch was within ten feet of him now and yet still he could see no features and then he realised why.
There were none.
The face, or at least where there should have been a face, was nothing but a gleaming, flesh coloured oval. No hair, no lips, no eyes. It looked as if someone had stuck a flesh coloured rugby ball on the flaking shoulders.
Finch stopped dead in his tracks, his heart thumping hard against his ribs as he ran appraising eyes over the figure. Looking at the gleaming dome, the flesh which hung like tattered streamers from all parts of the body.
As he watched, the figure reached to one side of the lounger and pulled something from the sand.
It was a piece of skin.
He watched as the figure smoothed it onto its chest, over the other pieces of slippery flesh, pressing it into place as if it were wallpaper.
Then it turned one tattered hand and waved at Finch, as if it were greeting a long lost friend.
Finch felt sick.
He put a hand to his mouth and felt two pieces of skin come away from his bottom lip, another from the top. He pulled them free and tossed them aside.
The figure on the lounger hastily retrieved them from the sand and pressed them into place on the gleaming dome.
Finch found that the flaps of flesh now formed lips.
Lips which smiled at him.
"Warm enough for you?" said the figure conversationally.
John Finch sat bolt upright, his body sheathed in sweat, the last vestiges of the dream still etched into his mind, his heart still thumping madly against his ribs. It took him a moment or two to calm down but, finally he lay back on the lounger, chuckling to himself, remembering the dream.
The figure constructed of peeled flesh.
He looked down and, as he did he saw that the skin he'd pulled off was gone. It no longer lay in the sand.
What he did see were the footprints.
They were the same size as his own, leading away from the lounger towards the sea.
Finch got up, swinging himself off the sun bed, following the footprints.
He knelt beside them and looked down, seeing something glistening in the indentations.
He picked the slippery matter up, holding it before him.
It was skin.
He glanced out to sea and, for a split second he thought he saw a figure, no more than twenty feet away from shore.
A figure which raised an arm and waved to him.
Waved then called out;
"Warm enough for you?"
The sun continued to beat down.
The figure was gone.
The wind rustled the trees.
© Shaun Hutson 1990