I have been to this beach a million times. I grew up running between the rock pools to the west and the smugglers’ caves on the eastern edge. From the marram grass to the shoreline. My father, my mother, my sisters and I came here almost every sunny Sunday.
At the first hint of warmth, my mother would open the back door, step out into the greening garden, squint upwards and extend her arms, as we watched her with our hearts skittering in anticipation.
“Go get your cozzies and towels,” she would smile. “Ham or tuna in your sandwiches?” as we tumbled out of the kitchen to see who could reach the airing cupboard first to grab the best beach towels, yelling to our Dad in a girlish gaggle as we clattered up the stairs,
“It’s a beach day, Dad! Come on!”
Long, golden afternoons. Harebell skies, heat reflecting upwards from caramel sand. The screech of seagulls overhead mingling with the shrieking of children buffeted by the waves of the cold Celtic Sea. Tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches with a side order of sand. Hot tea with a faintly metallic tang from the big, green flask to warm us once we could be coaxed out of the water, lips blue, skin pimpled, shaking from head to toe. Hot, sweet tea and a warm towel tent. Then, barely thawed, haring off with our fishing nets to catch tiny crabs, or periwinkles in the rockpools and to hunt out coloured shells and stones to add to the collections on our bedroom windowsills. Burying Dad in a powdery coffin and then leaving him cocooned to creep into the chilly, dark caves to play ghosts or pirates, always watchful for the incoming tide that could cut you off. The naïveté of childhood, when so much of my world was certain and solid and Mum and Dad were omnipotent and immortal.
Today the beach is many shades of grey. A spiteful wind is blowing around a sticky mixture of sand and seawater that coats any exposed skin and makes the eyes tear. When I lick my lips, I can taste the salt and my teeth grate on grit. Gulls wheel whitely in the dove grey sky, calling in conversation or warning to those foraging on the beach that a dog is approaching. The sand is dark, wet and solid, even beyond the high tide line, all the way up to the grassy dunes. The steel grey waves crash and roar, bringing their white horses galloping up the beach. To me it feels like fury.
It is November.
My father is dead.
I sit on a rock at the base of an outcrop that fingers its way onto the beach and watch as a couple walk hand-in-hand at a safe distance from the water. Even so, a rogue wave surprises them and they skitter sideways, laughing, clinging to one another. The woman turns and shouts something to three children with plastic shovels over by the rockpools. I see them lift their heads, listening and then continue with their excavations. Their dog, a large, dun-coloured wolfhound, runs ahead of the couple, jousting with the waves, oblivious or indifferent to the frigidity of the surf. It barks, first at the sea and then at the seagulls brave enough to still be scavenging in the sand. It hurtles towards one fearless bird, kicking up gobs of umber sand and, as the wind direction changes, I hear the man’s voice calling the dog to heel and then the children, as they race up the beach towards their parents, calling,
“Daddy, Daddy, wait!”
Daddy, Daddy, wait. I am untethered. Flapping in the biting wind. The returning shock of it numbs me, so that I can no longer feel the cold and damp that has been seeping through my woollen coat and jumper, the denim of my jeans, worming its way through my skin and settling in my organs.
I watch the couple on the beach, now flanked by their children. The man lifts the smallest child high in the air and settles it on his shoulders. He calls to the dog again. The family turn and retrace their steps back up the beach.
Aching, I climb down from the rock to return home for a cup of hot, sweet tea and a bath to chase the chill from my bones.
I am greeted by my mother, a worried pinch to her eyes. She rubs my cheek with a lightly floured hand, as if she’s soothing a frightened bird.
“I’ve been making your favourite. Chicken and leek pie.” She pauses, examining my face. “You’ve been to the beach again. You’re frozen. Come on.”
I follow her into the steamy kitchen, fragrant with the meaty smell of chicken stock and sit at the table stained and scarred by years of use. The oily gouge I worry at with my fingers now from when Dad tried to fix the lawnmower and Mum yelled,
“We’ve got to eat our dinner off of there!”
Mum puts a mug of tea in front of me and strokes my hair. Her voice is gentle, cajoling, although I feel the frustration running off her like gravy off the back of a spoon.
“It’s been two years, you’ve got to move on, love. We all miss him, but we didn’t die with him. Karen’s had Milly. Shelly’s getting married. Bob’s moving in here. Enough, lovey. Enough now.”
I look at my mother and try not to hate her. I picture Bob sitting in my father’s armchair; in his place at the table; on his side of the bed.
I feel like the last Crusader holding back the heathen hordes.
Danielle Posner Sykes first realised writing was what she wanted to do at the age of 13, when she reduced her English class to tears with a story written for homework. Having buried her vocation under a succession of ‘proper jobs’ while bringing up twins, she is now in the middle of redrafting her first proper novel. She lives in Hertfordshire with four cats, two daughters and an unreasonably large collection of books.