Seaside Gothic

Fiction | Poetry | Nonfiction

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Land’s End

Land's End by Catherine Law

First light, and the sun draws a shimmering line across the water. Low breakers make procession towards the beach where I walk the wet shoreline, spent waves licking my ankles with cold bubbling foam. My feet are numb, feel like they no longer belong to me. I watch the salty horizon, give thanks that the night is over, fighting loneliness running like a stitch through my flesh. I settle down on the sand in the usual place, and wait to be found.

Families come early, like they’ve done all summer, pulling up in saloons and estate cars high on the cliff top where the long grass and wildflowers grow. They unload buckets and spades, cool bags and striped windbreaks. Car doors slam and they pick their way down the path carved in the rocky chalk cleft. Children lead the way; flashes of bright swimming costumes invading my colourless world. Voices grow louder, excitement bursting out. Warm laughter amplifies my solitude.

Flip-flops are abandoned, useless anyway, prone to be lost in the dry shifting dunes, and I imagine the children feeling for the first time this holiday, the first time ever, slippery, rough grains between their toes. I plunge my own naked feet deep into the sand, aping them, longing for a pleasant sensation against my skin.

The grown-ups straggle on to the beach, loaded up, scouting for the right spot: over by the rocks where I sit, where it’s sheltered and still in shadow, or to the left where the sun burns all day. They start hollering instruction and their offspring set to work spreading blankets, finding pebbles to weight them. Fathers and big brothers hammer in flapping canvas. Parents grasp their children by the shoulders, stop them charging off, bend down and point, and it looks like they are pointing straight at me.

‘If you get lost, that’s where you go. Go there, stay there, don’t move, and we will find you.’

They look right through me, sitting there with my back against the Lost Children sign.

I shiver as the breeze, straight off the water, brings a chill beneath the glare of the sun. The cold shifts, emanates from inside me. The sea continues its rhythmic roar. More people arrive, a steady stream of bodies, and the beach, my beach, resembles an encampment. Territories are observed, except by dogs and intrepid toddlers. Tender youngsters paddle, hanging on to the hand of an aunt, an uncle. Ladies in flowery swimming caps doggy-paddle smilingly, chin above the water. Older kids hurtle into the waves. I want to tell them, tell them all: beware the cold, beware the undertow, the current that traps you, hauls you down. Kids prance barefoot over the rock pools, their chatter seeping through my ears. They dip nets, hold up streams of seaweed, a razor shell, a snappy little crab. Sandwiches are unwrapped, flasks unscrewed; liquid contents spilled, grit worming its way in to unpalatable food.

A young child in a yellow swimsuit pulls away from her siblings. She totters along the strand, passing close enough for me to see the freckles on her sun-rosy nose. Sand is stuck to the backs of her knees. A small bucket swings in her hand.

I haul myself up and follow. Someone must keep an eye. She patters along in the shallows, away from her family, squealing and chatting to herself, gazing at the wide water, scolding the foam for catching her ankles. Her hair is loose in her ponytail and whips in the breeze, damp bits sticking to her face. The pattern on her swimsuit—flowers the colour of sunshine—vibrates against the water and the rocks and the sand.

I catch up with her where waves break and throw spray up against the cliff, where dark caves hollow out the chalk, where little children really shouldn’t go. Walking with her, I feel shreds of myself peeling away, as if loneliness is the layers of my own skin. She stops, startled, drops her bucket, and peers down at her belly, her fingers spreading like tiny, startled starfish. A bumble bee has bobbed down from the grasses on the cliff top and found a home on her costume. It sits there, fat and brown, thinking it can sip from the flowers. She cannot move, or scream, or do anything except stare down at it, willing it to be gone. For it will sting if she moves, will sting if she doesn’t.

Mindful not to startle either creature, I squat down by her side, and I am no longer separated from the world. The child’s breath is sharp and warm, baby teeth raking her lip. Her fear-full rounded eyes are lucid green and fail to find my face. Willing my finger to be as light as a leaf, I gingerly lift the bee free. It resists and turns, and for a moment I think I won’t succeed, and the child will be stung, will cry, will die. The bee hovers and fizzes off into the blue. She watches it go and lets out a delighted laugh. She turns and runs, her feet kicking sand, scooting past the Lost Children sign. I hear a sibling call out to her, tell her off, and she is gathered up into her mother’s arms, carried back to the shelter of their little beach camp.

I pick up the bucket and follow her footprints, settle back in my usual spot. The light fades to evening and they all pack and leave. The wind grows stronger, bringing with it the night and I’m left to the blank darkness of the sea encroaching the pale belt of sand. I wonder if the child remembers me; she will certainly think of the bee, the yellow swimsuit, the chill in the air around her; less of a memory, more a secret part of her.

And she will return one day, with her own family, when fragments of her discarded bucket lie with the plastic lining the shoreline. In the meantime, I sit here on the damp cold sand, my back against the sign, waiting to be found.