‘This day at the beach is going to be great!’ said May, in her dreamy, misted voice, like she was a ghost, or a gypsy fortune teller.
‘Yes, mother said we could bring Duchess with us as well. Duchess was our old beagle. She loved to play around with the hens in the back garden of the house at Osterley. The nanny and her assistant thought it would be nice for us to go on an outing. The beach was the first idea. There carriage was made ready and the cooks prepared us a delicious picnic. Sandwiches with salad and chicken and ham, crisps flavoured with salt and vinegar, spinach and ricotta quiche, warm chilli con carne, spiced chicken wings, chocolate chip biscuits and to top it all off, a wobbly, bobbly, strawberry jelly (chunks of forest fruits litter the inside, suspended in the floppy goo).
My sisters Millie and Molly squealed as they saw the sea in the distance. May was mindlessly drawing pictures of flowers on a notepad and didn’t seem to notice where we were until the carriage came to a halt. She looked up from her drawing and realised where we were. ‘Oh, we’re here.’ She said simply and got out of the door that had just been opened by the footman. I’m the oldest of all of my siblings. Millie and Molly are twins with very different personalities. May is older than them by only a year. She’s 13. I’m 15. I always have to be the responsible one, almost always get blamed when Millie or Molly breaks an expensive vase or and antique table ornament. But today I’m just here to enjoy myself and forget my troubles. Have fun. Mother is trying to train me to be a lady and a lady hardly ever gets to enjoy herself. Duchess is jumping around my feet as I step out into the glaring sunlight and put up a parasol. I found a large stick in the sand dunes by the road. It looked good enough so I picked it up and tossed it as hard as I could in the direction of the sea. Duchess shot after it like a bullet from a soldier’s rifle. It landed somewhere in the shallows of a rock pool. I couldn’t see it but she could, and she went straight in after it. I strolled down onto the soft dry sand with Margaret, the nanny. We picked a good spot for the picnic mat and had just sat down to rest, when Duchess came bounding through the dunes stopped right in front of us, sopping wet. I barely had time to cover myself up with the umbrella, when she shook her whole body, spraying water everywhere. I laughed as Margaret coughed and spluttered. She took the full brunt of the blast.
We settled down to a scrumptious lunch. We ate all our sandwiches, and half of the quiche, all the chilli and the jelly was only on the plate for 5 minutes until we’d gobbled it up. I didn’t have any biscuits. I don’t like them. We saved the crisps for after we’d been in the sea and had a bit of exercise. Duchess had the left overs of the chilli – which she thoroughly enjoyed – and her rabbit cubes. (she’s a very pampered and a bit spoilt). I got my book out of my purse and started reading. I thought I would let the food go down a bit before I started running around. Duchess spread herself on the mat beside me and took a nap. The other girls, however, had other ideas. May, may be dreamy, but she’s incredibly clever and loves the science of rocks more than anything else. So she drifted over to the cliffs with her little note book, to take notes and see if she could spot anything unusual in the patterns of the rocks. Millie and Molly ran off in different directions, Millie to the tide pools, Molly to the shallows of the sea. She had got changed straight after the meal was finished. So had Millie and May.
After about twenty minutes, I had got changed into my swimming clothes and was heading down to the sea for a paddle with Duchess, when Millie came rushing out of a rocky out crop, in between scores of tide pools. She ran up to me and said, ‘Maggie, Maggie, you’ve got to come see. It’s a starfish!’ she sounded very excited, so I went with her – much to Duchess’ disappointment, a she had been looking forward to a nice long game of fetch down the long beach. Instead she amused herself by chasing a butterfly that had strayed too far from the sea flowers on the edge of the cliff. The cliffs shadowed the pools and I felt a shiver run down my spine. Millie led me to a small pool and in the middle of it laid a bright green starfish. Millie reached out to touch it. ‘Don’t Millie!’ she jerked her hand back. ‘it might be poisonous.’
‘No it’s not. It’s lost. We should put it back in the sea before a seagull eats it.’
I had to agree, but I was still cautious about the bright, Florissant colour. We found a stick and a flat rock and gently eased the starfish onto the rock. We then carried it carefully to the sea line. As we went, Millie was giggling. I couldn’t help but giggle too. The starfish was waving its five legs around in the air. We reached the sea and let it go. ‘Goodbye Mr Starfish’ she said as I walked away.
I played fetch with Duchess for 10 minutes. I wonder what Molly has found, and as if just on cue, she came fleeing out of a cave in the cliff screaming. I ran over to see what the matter was when I saw what she was running away from. I crab. Not tiny, but not particularly large either. She is easily scared, but this is a bit much. I went and picked up the poor, frightened creature. And held it to Molly’s hand. She shied away. ‘Come on Molly, it’s just a crab. Go on. Stroke it.’ I did it first so she could see. Then she reached out. It moved and she flinched. But she closed her eyes and touched it. ‘There, that wasn’t so hard was it?’ she shook her head.
May was slowly dragging her feet along the soft sand by a large sandstone slab in the middle of the dunes when I found her. I gave her some crisps which she excepted. We had already eaten most of them but I had managed to save some from the others. She was hunched over her notebook and a little stone. Gold and bronze and shiny brown lines streaked across the surface. The pebble was smooth and round. Beautiful. ‘It’s quite pretty isn’t it?’ she said lazily. ‘Yes, I suppose it is.’ I replied. ‘I think I’ll bring it home. Put it in my collection.’ ‘That sounds like a good plan.’
Time to go swimming. I went to retrieve my towel from the basket at the picnic mat with May and Duchess in tow. Then we climbed along the rocks to a beautiful lagoon. The water was clear and blue, the sand was soft and cream coloured, there was even a small waterfall cascading down the cliff. Wild sea flowers blossomed everywhere. The dunes and salt water trees provided just enough shade from the sun. It took our breath away. Even Duchess seemed to stop and look at the spectacle.
‘Last one to the waterfall has to clean up Duchess’ mess.’ Duchess looked at us as if to say, hey, what’s that supposed to mean? Hmmm. Then we started running. May was faster than she looked. She beat me by three lengths. I had to scoop that horrible mess up now, but I didn’t mind. We were just having fun right then. We dumped our stuff and left Duchess to play on her own, and then we ran to the sea as fast as we could. We ran up to our waists and then I dived in. I opened my eyes. I could see surprisingly well. The water was so clear. I went up for air and then swam to the sea bed. A shrimp hurried to get out of my way. A school of small fish raced past. It was so beautiful down there. Then something caught my eye. A little sparkle of the reflected sun. I had to get air but when I came back down I spotted where it was and made for it. I clung to a bit of seaweed to hold me down. It was a shell. A pure white pearl shell. It glistened in the sunlight. I thought this would be the perfect gift for my mother on her birthday next week. I put it in the pocket of my swimsuit. I went back to the surface. I swan back in until I was down to my waist. May was surrounded by a shoal of fish, feeding them bits of bread from her sandwich that she didn’t eat. Duchess bounded into the waves and swam to me. We just floated around for a while, then I found a good deep-ish area with a rock just good enough to be a diving board. I called May over and we both took it in turns diving into the calm, warm water. Even Duchess had a go. When she had done it twice, she decided that chewing on bits of dry seaweed was more fun.
We were done diving, so we eased ourselves into the water gently and Duchess slid in on a particularly slippery rock. We swan slowly to the shore, where we lay on the sand and closed our eyes. Then I remembered the shell. I took it out of my pocket and put it to my ear. The sound was so magical, I was immobilised for at least 5 minutes. The sweet melody of the sea and the warm breeze that swept across the sands. The soft sound of the waterfall completed the perfection of that moment. I wish could have stayed there for longer, but, as it is, the surroundings, I found myself thinking about my father. My father, lost at sea, and then reported dead. Whenever I go to the seaside, I find myself thinking about him, and how he gave his life for his country. But just being there, next to the expanse where he died, made me feel like I was closer to him, like he was with me, there comforting me. Millie and Molly don’t really remember him – they were about 3 years old when the Royal Navy Commander came to our door to give us the news. May was 4. But I was there before them and I remember him more. I miss him more. He used to pick me up and lift me above his head when he got back from a mission. I used to giggle with delight as he tickled my chin and kissed my forehead. But not anymore. Now there were just my sisters, mother and the staff. I missed him and I hoped, where ever he was, that he missed me too.
The sun was beginning to set as we climbed back over the rocks to the carriage. Our towels wrapped around us we scrambled over the wall of stone with Duchess trailing us. When we reached the other side we made our way to the carriage. We got changed and dry. Whilst the footman was putting the basket and mats away, I went round to the front of the carriage and gave a bit of crumbled bread to the horses. They’d had their lunch and some water so they were fine for the journey. I stroked the soft muzzle of Caesar, the one closest to me and my personal riding horse, and thought about the good time we’d had today and then of the shell.
As we pulled away from the beach and that wondrous lagoon, I took out my purse. I reached inside and found the smooth swirled surface of the shell. I pulled it out and examined it. It looked somehow different in the fading light of the day. Orange.
‘That’s a pretty shell Maggie. Is that a little souvenir?’ enquired Margaret.
‘Yeah, well sort of. It’s a birthday present for mother.’
‘That’s a good present for her birthday. Did you choose it because it’s a reminder of father?’
‘Yes. Something like that.’ I returned it to the safety of my purse and turned my head to look out of the window at the hills rolling by. I listened to my three little sisters debating whether or not the starfish was naturally that colour or if it was something else as I dreamed about my father coming home one day and lifting me above his head and kissing my forehead.