WRITTEN BY BARBARA FEATHERSTONE
Magical friends can be surprisingly helpful in times of trouble…
“Be careful, Evie! Hold on to the rail, darling.” I watch my small daughter closely as we climb down the clifftop stairs to the beach below.
At the bottom, we begin the daily ritual, tramping the shoreline. My small daughter bounds ahead like a frisky puppy. She skitters in the wavelets, scooping up shells and pretty pebbles, exploring rock pools for starfish and red-gold crabs.
We have been coming to the beach for ten days now. For me, it is respite; the time strictly monitored. An hour is all I can bear.
Evie has an affinity with the sea and the shore
Evie adores the beach. She has an affinity with the sea and the shore. My vivacious daughter is only four but her enthusiasm and imagination are awesome. She talks to seagulls; spins stories about the flotsam and jetsam strewn across the shingle. She searches for sea-bleached driftwood, and turns it into art. In warm weather she swims like a dolphin. But these last few days have been too grey and cold for swimming, and I don’t know when the sun is going to shine any more.
“Mummy, I can hear the sea!”
Evie is holding a large seashell to her ear, her eyes shining. “This is a whelk shell,” she informs me, importantly.
“Daddy told me the name. We looked it up on Daddy’s laptop.”
I’ve read somewhere that the most vulnerable part of a child’s body – the bit that catches at your heartstrings – is the nape of their neck. But for me it’s Evie’s sticky-out ears. They’re not sticky-out enough to call “jug ears”. They simply jut out just that teeny bit to make you ache to catch that fleeting moment of childhood and hold it fast.
I watch my daughter’s small fingers curl around the shell, her forehead creased. She holds the shell gently, probing the spiralled ridges with fierce concentration. Suddenly, she hurls the whelk shell into the creamy wavelets.
“I want Daddy!”
She darts a look up at the glistening white building, just visible, perched high above us on the clifftop. Then she grabs a stick and scrawls DADDY in the sand.
Her mood changes, quicksilver. She scrabbles in the shingle at the water’s edge and picks out another shell. She straightens, exploring it with her fingers.
“I like this shell better. There are lots and lots of them on the beach. You can’t hear the sea in them, but I don’t mind.”
The shell curves delicately, silky-smooth and creamy-curled, its throat gleaming mother-of-pearl.
“Daddy said this is called a slipper shell. When you turn it over, it looks just like a little slipper. See?” My daughter chews her lip. “But I think it’s a tiny cradle… for mermaids’ babies.”
I breathe in the sharp air, the tang of salt stinging my eyes
Above us, in the grey-blue sky, a solitary gull wheels and keens. It sounds forlorn. I breathe in the sharp air, the tang of salt stinging my eyes. Evie flicks me a sideways look.
“This shell is for you, Mummy. You can keep it in your pocket.” She pauses. “You can give it back to me when we get to Nanny’s house.”
I ruffle her hair and smile. I tuck the shell into my pocket and watch Evie zigzagging along the shore.
“Don’t go too far, darling! We have to meet Nan soon…”
Her voice echoes back to me.
“I’m just going to see my mermaid.” She’s off, swinging her little red plastic bucket.
I track her, keeping her in sight. She stumbles forward over the shingle, trailing a slimy, scabby length of purple-green seaweed. Evie is ever the beachcomber.
Suddenly, she whips about, changes direction, away from the shore to a group of large rocks huddled together at the bottom of the cliff.
The tallest of these rocks is Evie’s mermaid. To me, it is just a big, scraggy piece of rock. But when Evie explains it to me, I see it through her eyes. And it is a mermaid. There is her face; her long, wavy hair; her arms. And there is her tail, lashing upwards.
When I catch up with her, my little daughter is reaching up, wrapping the clammy trail of seaweed, scarf-like, about the mermaid’s neck. Littered about her is a collection of small treasures from the red seaside bucket.
“What’s that, darling?” I point to a small object amongst the shells and pebbles. It’s black, leathery, about eight centimetres long, with long tendrils.
Evie squints down at it.
“It’s a Mermaid’s Purse, of course. She lost it when she was swimming. The waves washed it up, and I found it.”
She gives a giant sigh and blinks up at me, as if I know nothing.
“Daddy told me about a special kind of fish. They lay an egg in a little purse. Then, when the egg hatches out, the fish gives the empty purse to the mermaids.”
Evie has finished her decorating. The drooping of her mouth tells me she knows it’s time to go.
“Nanny will be waiting, won’t she?”
“And then you’ll go and see Daddy. And when it’s bedtime you’ll talk to me on your mobile, and blow me a kiss goodnight. And tomorrow we’ll come down to the sea again, won’t we?”
I wonder how many tomorrows there will be…
I nod again and wonder how many tomorrows there will be.
We start back across the beach. I glance at my watch. We’re a tad late, but my mother is understanding. She’ll keep herself busy in her clifftop bungalow until her granddaughter and I arrive.
“Oh, I forgot…!”
Evie is stumbling back towards her mermaid. She clamps her arms tight about the mermaid’s craggy waist, and gazes up at her. In a moment she is racing back to me, the tips of her sticky-out ears pink-tinged with cold.
“The mermaid said she wanted to whisper me something, Mummy.”
“And what did she whisper?”
“Secrets. She whispered me secrets.”
We trudge back again across the shingle; Evie a little tired now.
My mobile rings. Without thought, I whip it from my bag. It lies in my palm as I stare at it, unseeing. It rings and rings, the insistent notes mingling with the keening of the gulls; the salt air stinging my eyes and cheeks.
Evie snatches the mobile from my hand. I take it back. “No, Evie.”
“Is it Daddy?” she demands.
I tell her yes. I tell her we have to hurry. She asks about her Nan. I tell her there isn’t time. I’ll call Nan later and explain. She will wait for us.
The climb to the glistening white cottage hospital on the clifftop takes a million years; each step a hundred metres wide, the cold metal railing snaking up into eternity. I take Evie’s slipper shell from my pocket and hold it, pinprick, in my hand.
My husband, David, is waiting for us. The hospital room has yellow walls; the bed a creamy coverlet. I look at my husband’s face. And I stop breathing.
“She’s out of danger.” David’s voice is a whisper, telling secrets. Only then do I allow myself a glance at the cot beside the bed. I tiptoe over. In the cot lies our new baby daughter. She’s curled tight, thumb in mouth, our little seashell baby; the sheen of her skin like mother-of-pearl. I start to breathe again.
Which way would the tide turn?
For ten days, my husband and I have been keeping watch, waiting… which way would the tide turn?
David brushes a kiss along my cheek. He hugs Evie tight and holds her high to see into the cot. Two periwinkle-blue eyes stare up at us.
Evie says hello to her tiny sister.
“Your name is Star.” She grins round at me. “That’s the secret my mermaid whispered. She said my baby’s name was Star.” She frowns, suddenly unsure.
I smile at her.
“Your mermaid was right, Evie. She’s very clever. And so are you.”
Ten days ago, my husband and I had our baby baptised, at the hospital. It was a private ceremony; simple, moving and beautiful. We named our child Estelle. It’s of Latin/French origin. We chose it because she was conceived on a secluded starlit beach, one night in France. Her name, Estelle, means star…