A PICNIC ON THE BEACH • by Owen Archlimb

I didn’t like to see her go like that, but perhaps it was for the best. Drowning’s meant to be a good way, but I don’t see how. All that salt water up the nose, and the panic. Though she probably didn’t panic. Not my Heather.

She was a good un, my old girl. Drove ambulances during the war. Always capable, up for an adventure. Once when I said I was relieved a neighbour had passed quietly in his sleep, she snorted at me and said, “Where’s the fun in that?” But that was Heather. “At least he died before he went completely loony,” she said.

Most people wouldn’t want their eighty-eight-year-old mother swimming at Brighton on a rough day, but the children were grown and gone long ago, and there was only me to stop her. Normally she’d be fine, but the picnic fiasco must have thrown her. Swimming on an empty stomach.

We’ve got a lovely hamper. Won it in a prize draw from Woolworth’s when the boys were small, and it’s still going strong. Little matching cups and everything in its place. Soup and sandwiches, and some apple for after, already cut up. Better for the dentures like that. Heather does the picnic while I check the oil in the car, that’s how we do it. We take it in turns to drive. She goes faster than me.

They said I was very calm, when they fished her out. I said I’d been expecting something like this, and explained about the ambulances. They didn’t see what I was getting at.

I didn’t show them the hamper.

When the waves are big, you see their heads for a second, and then they bob out of sight, and then — peepo! — you can see them again. I’ve long ago learnt not to worry. Once they’re out past the breakers they’re fine, because people mostly float, no matter how up-and-down it is. Getting out again’s the tricky bit, when the shingle gets sucked round your feet and tries to pull you back in.

“You didn’t fancy a swim then?” the ambulance driver asked me. Only they call them paramedics these days.

I wasn’t sure if he was making a joke, so I just said no. Heather was the only one braving it today, apart for some surf boarders up the other end. They were all wearing those rubber suits though, which keep them warmer. She felt so cold when I touched her hand.

She had had the hamper on her lap in the deck chair, and I pulled a rug around my shoulders while she fussed with the clasp. Then she said, “Oh,” and closed the lid again. I looked over as she opened it a second time, expecting to see something different, but she said, “Oh, oh dear,” and started hunting through her handbag.

I picked up the hamper to look. In the sandwich box was a cabbage leaf. Each cup had one neatly rolled leaf poking out. The thermos was crammed full of the things.

She was fretting, and I don’t like to see her fret. Turning out her pockets and her handbag as if she’d find the sandwiches hiding there, and saying, “oh dear, oh dear,” over and over again.

“Never mind, love,” I said, “we can go and have fish and chips, can’t we. That’ll be nice for a change, won’t it? A treat.”

She didn’t cry about it. Strong, my Heather. You had to be, seeing the things she saw, driving ambulances in the war. Can’t let something like a picnic knock you for six.

So I went off to the chip shop and she struggled into her cozzie, and when I got back I could just see her head playing peepo over the waves. Where’s Heather gone — peepo! Where’s Heather gone — peepo!

I’d eaten my chips before I went to get anybody. I think it’s what she’d want. An adventure.

Owen Archlimb lives in the UK. He writes in a variety of genres and forms, as the mood takes him on a particular day. His gloomy countenance is sporadically lightened by the temperamental affections of a one-eared cat called Mabel.

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