The Beach Where He Found It
It was autumn when my daughter died. Yellowed leaves had shrouded her crumpled corpse by the time they found her in the grass verge between the pavement and the park. According to the coroner, it was the sludge of fallen leaves that killed her, made her slip and bang her head in the panic of the attack; mugged for fifty quid and her mobile phone.
Some thought me brave, others thought me cold, the way I kept going, but I was neither. Forty-nine and no longer a mother, I clung on to the old routines by the tips of my lacquered nails. I knew how to set the alarm and totter in heels to the bus stop. I knew how to operate a till. I’d already learnt to cook for one but I’d never adapt to a world without my daughter.
A family of two since she was a toddler, it was a wrench when she moved out. But I was glad to step back and let her navigate her own life. I lapped up the airbrushed anecdotes she fed me over kitchen-table chats in our dressing gowns at Christmas and birthdays. After her death the changing seasons had no meaning: even on the brightest day, grey clouds blocked the sun.
When I heard the message on the answerphone, I thought I’d gone crazy. It was a Thursday, the one night I worked late. I was tired, more tired than usual, although not tired enough to hallucinate. I played it through a dozen times and then I sat on the sofa, still in my coat, still in my heels, staring at nothing.
The voice was a stranger’s but the words were hers. My mind panned through the possibilities, homing in on the glimmers of hope amongst the dread. Her death had been an elaborate charade to escape me. The police had put her on witness protection. She was on the run with a man with a dubious past. Her long-lost father had claimed her; she’d been kidnapped and I had twenty-four hours to raise the ransom. Anything would do, so long as it meant it wasn’t my daughter’s body beneath that blanket of autumn leaves.
I listened again. The voice was jaunty: “I found your postcard. Let me know if you want it back.” Then, as if reading from a script, my daughter’s words.
A caravan perched above chalky cliffs, a picnic among the dunes. Still young enough to shape the sand into fairy-tale castles, yet old enough to battle the stove to bring me morning tea in bed. An imaginative child, romantic, she fancied she saw porpoises cresting the waves.
It was Miranda’s idea to rinse out a fat-necked smoothie bottle and post her message through the waves. She swapped her pocket money at the on-site shop for a selection of picture postcards and a ballpoint with multi-coloured inks. She spent an entire rainy afternoon figuring what to write.
“It shouldn’t be too complicated,” she said. “A Chinese lady might find it.”
I doubted it would make it as far as the next bay, but I couldn’t shatter her illusions. “If you give them our address they can write and let you know where it’s got to.”
“I’ll put our phone number,” she said. “That should be easier to read.”
Perhaps it was out of apathy that I’d kept the landline. Perhaps I was also a dreamer, waiting for some faraway stranger to resurrect my child. The voice on my answerphone was male, however, and Scottish rather than Asian, but it was definitely quoting Miranda’s words.
If this card should chance to roam
Please be kind and help it home.
He’d sent it on the first stage of its journey. Now it was up to me to do the rest. I shed my coat, slipped off my shoes and picked up the phone.
It was a while before I was well enough to travel up to Scotland. Ian had offered to put the bottle in the post, but I couldn’t risk losing her again. Besides, I needed to stand on the beach where he’d found it. I owed it to the memory of that holiday, to the girl who’d lent her optimism to the sea.
I’d put on weight in those weeks I was on sick leave, languishing on the sofa, stuffing my face with chocolate while staring at terrible TV. I slept through the alarm, or forgot to set it. I didn’t have the energy to varnish my nails. I was pleased my daughter’s message had reached dry land, yet it was as if they’d discovered her leaf-strewn body all over again.
Ian sounded amused when I first rang him, but he couldn’t apologise enough when I explained. Even in his consternation his voice was soothing, the type of accent you’d want on the end of a helpline, promising to fix the problem, whatever it was.
I must have looked a fright in my frumpy cagoule and flatties when he met me at the station, but Ian was too much of a gentleman to let it show. He drove me to the beach, handed me the bottle, pointed out the cafe in the distance where he would wait. He told me to take as long as I required.
I’d imagined tramping miles along the shoreline, collecting shells and bits of jetsam to build a shrine. I’d imagined sobbing, collapsing, scrubbing sand through my hair. Instead I pulled up my hood against the wind and hunkered down on the rocks. As a crab scuttled away into a recess, I pictured Miranda, with her fishing net, in pursuit. Yet, had she lived, she’d be beyond that now.
I unscrewed the lid and pulled out the postcard. I let it rest, a prayer book in my palms, as I stared out to sea. A trawler pricked the horizon and, in the middle distance, seagulls swarmed. I tried to conjure porpoises as I waited for nostalgia to grab me, to swallow me up and deposit me among the waves.
I stared until the sea had merged with the sky, but my soul was unaltered. I turned my attention to the picture postcard. We’d spent hours selecting the best of the bunch, yet the ranks of beached sun loungers failed to tally with my memories of that holiday. It could’ve been anywhere.
I flipped over the card. The purple ink was faded along the fold and the neat round letters could have been formed by any earnest child. Even the words, although carefully chosen, were unoriginal. Hardly the essence of her.
I stuffed both card and bottle in my pocket. I’d come all this way to be reunited with my daughter but she’d already gone.
I was hankering after that coffee but it was too soon to turn up at the cafe. I rose and, slip-sliding across the seaweed-strewn rocks, headed for the bank of marram where a zigzag path let me meander through my thoughts. It was daft to concern myself with what Ian thought of me, but I was loath to give him the impression I didn’t care. Yet what would he be judging? There’s no right way to grieve.
I remembered a quarrel the Christmas after she’d left home. Apart from the terrible twos and teenage door-slamming, it was the only argument we ever had. She berated me for not finding myself a boyfriend after her father had upped sticks. I was flabbergasted: I’d no pretensions to be the perfect mother but I’d never expected to be criticised for putting her needs before mine.
“Don’t you see,” she snapped, “the burden that puts on me?”
I was too old for romance now, too set in my ways. Ian seemed to tread a similar groove. I’d expected someone older when he mentioned on the phone he was a widower. Someone with wispier hair.
I cast a final glance towards the ocean. The view had scarcely changed: the lonely trawler and the squabbling seabirds. I turned to face the land. Across open pasture, I could make out a low-rise building, with a couple of rustic benches under an awning to the side. I needed that coffee. Ian could think what he liked.
I trudged through the rough grassland. Here and there, among the spikes of coarse grass, I caught a glimpse of pink. Some child, I thought, leaving a trail of sweet wrappers; her mother should have checked her. I looked again: those ruby spots weren’t litter but tiny clumps of delicate flowers fighting through the green.
As I neared the cafe the flowers thickened to a rosy carpet. Butterflies danced in and out and, up above, a curlew called.
I lowered my hood, let the pale sun stroke my hair. What was the name of that flower? Perhaps Ian would know.
I quickened my pace. Spring had crept up on me without my knowledge or permission. Yet, now it had come knocking, how could I refuse to let it in?
Country house hotel
Des would’ve preferred to meet up at the hotel, but Bev was adamant. “It won’t be the same if we don’t travel together.” He could’ve pointed out it wouldn’t be the same anyway without Dad, but Bev could get stroppy when she was thwarted and the last thing their mother needed was them squabbling like a couple of kids.
It would have been strange driving past the hotel turnoff on the way up north, so Des took the train. Despite the inconvenience of an early start, he enjoyed the journey, sifting through the morning paper over a not-too-dreadful coffee and a breakfast baguette.
The old house looked smaller than he remembered. Even with the double-glazed windows and block-paved driveway, the place seemed frozen in the 1970s, and Des with it. He gave the taxi driver an extra-large tip, but it didn’t make him feel any bigger than the boy who’d grown up here.
Bev answered the door. He dropped his bag and they hugged awkwardly in the cramped hallway, both pretending they’d have embraced more elegantly had there been more space. As his sister pushed off towards the kitchen to make him a cup of tea, he wondered if she’d had that old-fashioned smell of Parma violets the last time he’d seen her, and whether her hair had been such an unnatural shade of red.
His mother was halfway up from her chair when he joined her in the lounge, like a wind-up toy that needed an extra turn of the handle to complete its routine. Des hugged her as clumsily as he’d hugged his sister, but this time it served a purpose: helping her to her feet and back to her seat.
He positioned himself on the end of the sofa, almost exactly as he’d sat as a boy on another sofa to watch TV. “You’re looking well,” he told his mother, his manufactured cheerfulness covering the shock and embarrassment at how wrinkled and gaunt she’d become since the funeral only two months before.
Bev brought his tea and commandeered the other end of the sofa. Des sipped from the china cup. “No-one else having one?”
His mother looked hopefully across at Bev, but she shook her head. “Better not. Don’t want to have to stop to spend a penny on the way there.”
Des watched his mother shrink back into her chair. Now he was used to her, she didn’t look so bad, dressed in a cheerful maroon skirt-suit with her hair freshly curled. Perhaps she’d needed to lose weight. “Excited?” He swallowed another mouthful of tea. “I wonder how much it’s changed.”
“De-es!” Bev nudged him, and none too gently, though fortunately not on the side that was balancing his teacup.
“It’s a surprise, remember?” She shot him the how-stupid-can-you-get look she’d been throwing his way since he was six years old.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
Bev scowled. “Are you sure you want to spoil it?”
“It’ll be delightful, wherever we’re going,” said their mother. “Will Susan be joining us?”
Bev sniggered. “They’re not together anymore, Mum. You know that.”
“Oh, I thought maybe …”
Because she’d come to the funeral. Des unfastened the top button of his shirt and loosened his tie. He generally went around in jeans on his days off, but Bev had suggested the suit. But he needn’t have listened; sure, the hotel was upmarket but the dress code couldn’t be that strict.
“Anyway,” said their mother, “we’ll have a lovely time just the three of us.”
Bev didn’t quibble when he changed into jeans for the drive to the hotel. It made him feel foolish for following her instructions in the first place. All it took to be treated like a grown-up was to behave like one. His sister wasn’t an ogre.
She’d been a gem when their father died. While Des was still reeling from his divorce, Bev had not only arranged the funeral, but she’d organised this trip to give the mother something to distract her on their father’s birthday. Of course, Bev had been closer to their parents, equally at ease with each of them. Women were generally more clued in to the emotional agenda, but Bev had seemed especially adept. Certainly he’d never heard her moan about her mother the way Susan and her friends did. He resolved to find a moment over the weekend to let his sister know how much he appreciated how she held the family together.
When he realised the case he’d brought was too small to accommodate his suit, his mother fussed about, looking for an old suit-bag of his father’s. Bev said it was lucky they’d booked a late lunch, but soon they were ready to leave. Belted into the back of Bev’s car, Des refused to allow himself to feel belittled.
The journey would have been quicker by motorway, but Bev had wanted to recreate an epic childhood journey. Although forty years on the traffic was much denser, it seemed to work. Watching the scenery go by, their mother seemed to perk up. “Are we going to the caravan?”
“My lips are sealed,” said Bev.
“Mine too,” said Des.
Soon they were reminiscing about the year it rained the entire week, and the year they all got sunburned. “We didn’t know any better back then,” laughed their mother and Des felt that indeed those summers had been glorious, and there was something amiss in him, something petulant and childish, to have kept his family at a distance.
They began to sing, simple folk songs, the words coming back to Des with a surprising fluency. “Old Macdonald had a farm.” “She’ll be coming round the mountain.” “Ten green bottles.” And then almost as suddenly as they’d started, they stopped, each perhaps in their own way missing his father. Des felt a tightening in his chest with the love he’d never voiced.
As the road snaked through the fells, inducing in Des a slight sensation of nausea, he couldn’t prevent his thoughts turning to the failure of his marriage. Susan had asked him to ease up on work to give them more time together, but he hadn’t listened. He knew what his problem was, had known for years, but that didn’t mean he could do anything about it. Work had been his retreat from the messy business of relationships.
He heard his mother snore. Bev half turned from the wheel to smile. “It would be about her she’d start with her stories.”
They’d been as much a part of the holiday ritual as that first ice cream. Their mother’s childhood had been one big adventure, far more exciting than any of the stories they could read in a book. But the one about her wartime evacuation had been extra special, because the big house where her aunt had been in service marked the half-way point between home and the holiday resort by the sea.
“I always thought there was something fishy about it.” Bev met his gaze in the rear-view mirror.
It was painful to admit it, but he’d never enjoyed his mother’s stories as much as he’d made out. Never as much as Bev seemed to. Their mother had been so brave, not shedding a tear when she was whisked away from home with only her old teddy and a gas mask. Much braver than Des had ever felt – and he was a boy. “Fishy?”
“How it was all so perfect,” said Bev, as their mother continued to snore.
As the car slowed, Des angled his neck to peer through the front window at the sign of the rampant squirrel up ahead. They used to compete to be the first to spot it; Bev usually won.
Their mother stirred at the tick of the indicator, then resettled herself as the car turned onto the drive. Des didn’t know when the country house had been transformed into a hotel, didn’t know how many birthdays and wedding anniversaries had passed since it was opened to the public. But he knew his mother had never spoken of visiting in all those years. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, the words sounding more sharp to his ears than he’d heard them in his head.
They progressed down a driveway bordered with poplars. Tyres crunching gravel snapped their mother out of her doze. Bev pulled up outside the porticoed entrance. Across the tended lawn, the lake shimmered. “You know where you are?”
Their mother’s breath was laboured, her eyes wide, her face white. “Oh, my!”
Bev hopped out and opened the front passenger door. “Once we get checked in, you can take us on a tour.”
The old woman stayed put. She had told them how, as a child, she’d had the run of the place, hanging out with gardeners and stable boys. Freedom, of a kind, but for whom? Her aunt would have been too busy in the kitchen to supervise.
“Let’s leave it,” said Des. “There’s fairly decent café at the garden centre a couple of miles down the road.”
Bev took her mother’s wrinkled hand. “I booked us in here.”
Their mother pulled back into the bucket seat, shaking her head. So brave Des had thought her, but perhaps he’d underestimated to what extent. It seemed, for all their closeness, that Bev had too. “Look, she doesn’t want to. You meant well, Bev. Now get back in the car and we’ll go elsewhere.”
Bev cut across him. “They treated you special here, did they? Let’s get inside and you can tell us all about it.”
Their mother let out a sob.
“Come on, Mum,” said Bev. “You can rattle on about yourself to your heart’s content. Exactly as you did when we were kids.”
The autumn sun shone on Bev’s burgundy hair. Des realised there was nothing natural about his sister at all.