They did not ask her, they told her. Be ready tomorrow, light clothing; layers, they said. Bel wasn’t sure they even told her where they were going.
Bobby came in, looked at her and backed out. “Mum,” she heard him shout back across the garden to the house, making the word into two syllables. “She’s got a woolly dress on.”
Footsteps. Quick footsteps.
“Oh Mum,” said Claire, “we told you we’re taking you to the beach, it’s going to be hot, you need summer clothes.”
With the curtains closed she’d forgotten it was summer, thought for a moment it was November, near her birthday perhaps, or near Armistice Day. Once her glasses were on she could see it wasn’t a poppy on the table at all, it was a coaster with a design of bright red circles on it. What a muddle.
Not to be difficult she went to pull herself up out of the chair to change. If getting dressed at 89 was hard, try getting undressed. She really should just wear skirts and tops; the navy woollen dress had to either go up over her shoulders — impossible, it hurt too much to raise her arms that high — or down over her hips. But down meant standing, and standing meant leaning, and leaning meant only one hand free to tug it slowly down, one side at a time an inch or two until it dropped. At least she didn’t have much in the way of hips anymore.
Later in the car, squashed beside Bobby and Flo in the back, she was glad of the thin cotton skirt and light blouse as the children seemed to radiate heat. Claire wanted the windows closed so the ‘Air Con’ could work, but it made the air dry and claggy, it caught in her throat and made her want to swallow every minute or so. But she would not say anything.
“Gran, will you have an icecream when we get there?” Flo was excited. “I’m going to have a Fab covered in hundreds and thousands.” She hugged herself just thinking of it.
“Let’s see,” Bel replied. She never seemed to be very hungry anymore, even for ice cream. It had used to be such a treat; she remembered her mother bribing good behaviour with the promise of an ice cream; remembered her father solemnly telling her the icecream van only played its tune when it had run out of ice creams, and her mother tut-tutting at him and telling him off for being so cruel.
They had gone to the beach on day trips when she was a child. Before the war, when everyone thought the world might be mended well enough not to unravel again. It was always hot, in her memory, always sand in the hard-boiled eggs and pink, tingly skin on the way home. She had liked to sit on the beach just up from the fringe of the waves. She did not like building sandcastles, instead she liked building sand canals. Endlessly. Deep and zig-zagged, lined with little pebbles and patted hard to make them sturdy. Like mini trenches. Each year they got more elaborate, she could take all day, tongue between teeth, concentrating hard. One year Dad had just stood looking at them silently before they left to go home. Transfixed, he was.
“Don’t worry,” her mother had said. “He’s just thinking of the past.”
But some years, if the timings were right, the tide turned and the waves slowly lapped the nearest canal, and water filled it, and Dad and she cheered and took bets which zig-zag would fill next, and he smiled so wide you could see his molars.
Flo lay a few feet in front of her on her tummy on a towel, flicking through her phone screens. Bobby was wading out with a gang of other kids, just over their knees, balancing each time a wave gusted against them, arms up towards the seagulls. Bel thought the seagulls were bigger now than they were in her day. Herring gulls with yellow, knowing eyes, drawn by the picnics, every one of them a thief.
“Do you want to help me make a sandcastle, Gran?” asked Flo out of the blue. Bored, she knelt next to Bel’s deckchair. “You can stay there if you like and I can make it right in front of you.” And she mounded up the wet sand and began to shape a castle. Bel reached down and scooped an handful of cool, damp sand. “I like making moats,” she said.
“Great, Gran, you moat and I’ll build.”
They worked together for a while until Bel had the most curious sensation. She felt as if she was floating, unsure whether she was Bel or Flo, as if she was both inside herself and outside, as if her mother was sitting beside her watching the moat get deeper and wider. She seemed to step out of her body and into Flo for a moment; intent; concentrating; alive.
Then a gull called, harsh and piercing, drawing her back into herself. She looked out at the sea, at the bars of waves coming steadily in towards the beach, rising slowly, heaping themselves up as they got close, falling over themselves and spilling up the sand, again and again.
Sarah Murray teaches English Literature and Language part time and lives in the countryside where she enjoys walking and writing.