WRITTEN BY TERESA ASHBY
This tranquillity was just what I needed after all the family chaos… wasn’t it?
Leigh was right. This beach is amazing. It’s so empty. There’s not another soul in either direction, as far as the eye can see.
“You’ll love it,” she’d said as she dangled the key in front of my nose.
“Go on, take it. The key to my kingdom. Escape from the hustle and bustle with Patrick for a couple of weeks and recharge your batteries. You need this break, Amelia.”
It always took me by surprise when she used my name. These days I’m Mum, Granny, Babe (to my parents) or just plain old Millie, but Leigh is the one who reminds me who I really am.
Leigh doesn’t have any children, although I have to say she’s a fabulous godmother and probably the best honorary aunty ever.
She has no pets except for the huge carp in her pond. I’d call it a lake, but Leigh has no pretensions despite her wealth, so it’s a pond.
Her main home is a big house with loads of land in Yorkshire and she has smaller places dotted around the world including a cabin in Canada, a villa in Italy and a beach house here in the UK.
She offered me the Italian villa, but I said no thanks. I wouldn’t feel right being so far from my family. What if there was a sudden crisis and they needed me?
“They’d have to muddle through,” she said. “Just the same as you always did.”
It had been hard, though, all that muddling through…
But it had been hard, all that muddling through when my kids were small. Really hard. While Leigh was off seeing the world and building her empire, I was hiding behind the sofa from the bailiffs.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge her any of it.
We’ve been friends since we were knee-high to the donkeys Leigh’s mum kept in the field behind her house.
They were ex-beach donkeys, living out their retirement with grass beneath their hooves and no small children dropping ice cream on their manes and digging their heels into their sides.
They had cats draped on every windowsill and dogs sprawled on sofas.
“She thinks more of her animals than she does of me,” Leigh once said. “I can’t wait to get away from this place.”
“You’re not going away, are you?” I said, filled with dismay at the thought. Only a handful of people ever left our small town. Mostly once they left, they never came back.
“I am,” she said, pointing her hand like a snake and stretching it out in front of her. “Whoosh. As soon as possible, I’ll be gone.”
Her words hurt more than I thought possible, but she was true to them. At sixteen she did what the girls in the teen magazines we read back then did. She moved to the city to share a flat with a couple of other girls.
It broke my heart.
She came back for visits and I feared she’d change, but she didn’t. She was still the same old Leigh. She tried to talk me into moving with her, but I couldn’t leave my parents. It would have felt like a betrayal after they’d struggled to raise me, and I was an only child. If I left, they’d have no-one.
Then the children arrived and I learned what it meant to be part of the sandwich generation – even more so when I became a grandmother.
If I’m not taking Mum shopping, I’m taking a grandchild or four to school and when I’m not doing that, I’m driving Dad to his physiotherapy appointment or ferrying a family pet to the vet.
There aren’t any footprints on this beach except mine. The only sounds are the waves lapping and the occasional cry of a seagull. I suppose it’s not the time of year to attract people to the beach.
I’m just not used to this level of quiet. It’s giving me a headache. No, really, it is. I can feel the pressure of the emptiness building up in my head.
I had no intention of taking Leigh up on her offer, but then she came up with the deal-breaker…
“Have you ever thought that your family might like a break from you?”
It had never crossed my mind. But once she’d put the idea there, I couldn’t get rid of it.
Yes, I dropped everything if they needed me to and I looked after their kids so that they could go to work, but I also knew that if I popped in to see them I’d be welcome to stay as long as I liked and if they went anywhere, I was always invited to go along.
I knew if I needed one there was always a cup of tea and a hug along with a slice of advice at Mum’s.
My kids had all booked the same two weeks off after Christmas so I’d have two weeks free. Someone made a half-hearted suggestion about us all going away together, but nothing came of it.
I should never have had that moan to Leigh about how I felt I was drowning in other people’s lives. I hadn’t meant it – not really.
I’ve never been any good at sitting still. I’ve been on this beach for twenty minutes and I can’t sit any more – and besides, I’m getting cold. Patrick went off fishing straight after breakfast. Married thirty years, and I didn’t even know he liked fishing.
It’s not sandcastle-building weather by any means and you’d freeze your feet off if you went for a paddle, but I can’t help thinking how the grandchildren would love it here. There are all sorts of pretty shells to collect; little stacks of slipper limpets, cockles, mussels and witches’ hats. There are mermaid’s purses and shark’s teeth and tiny shells like pink sunsets.
I squat down and check out one of the rock pools. Tiny crabs scuttle among anemones, starfish and sea urchins while tiddlers dart about just beneath the surface of the water. What a treasure trove – and only me here to see it.
That little stone jetty would be a perfect place for crabbing when the tide is in, and out on the sandbank there are dozens of winter geese mingling with busy little oystercatchers.
But I can’t find the joy in it when there are no little ones to share it with. My parents would love this too, sitting in the shade of the trees by the sandy path, wrapped up in snug blankets, watching their great-grandchildren play.
I wish I hadn’t come, but Patrick said it was a great idea and who were we to turn up our noses at a free holiday?
I carry on walking along the beach. With every step I feel sorrier for myself. None of them need me… not really. What was it they all said? Go on, we’ll manage fine. Don’t worry about us.
And they looked so pleased. Almost relieved. I suppose it meant they could get on with their lives without the possibility of me popping in.
The tide is bringing in a stiff breeze. I turn back towards the beach house. It isn’t as grand as it sounds. Although it’s big, it’s a bit ramshackle and shabby.
Leigh says it’s her favourite of all her homes because it reminds her of her chaotic childhood. So it couldn’t have been all bad, could it, living with all her brothers and sisters and the dogs and cats and the donkeys in the back field?
I’m nearing the path that leads to the house when I see a figure ahead. It waves. Unmistakably Leigh.
I run, my feet slipping on the soft sand. I’ve only been here since yesterday but I feel as if I’m being rescued from a desert island.
She’s dressed in stylish white jeans tucked into tan boots and a pink padded jacket, and she looks impossibly young.
“Thought you might fancy some company, Amelia,” she says.
“You know me so well.”
“Yes,” she says. “I do. So how does it feel, away from the hustle and bustle?”
“Pull the other one.”
“Well, it’s a bit quiet.”
“Remember when my parents used to take us to the seaside for the day?”
How could I forget? They would load us all up in their clapped-out old van, children and dogs, and head for the beach. We’d explode from that van, a riot of noise and colour, and we’d have non-stop fun until it was time for home.
Leigh’s mum always took a good supply of buckets and spades, peanut butter sandwiches, boiled eggs and those little flags for sticking in the top
If it was cold we’d have flasks of soup and hot dogs and wrap our scarves round our faces. Winter was no barrier to fun as far as Leigh’s mum was concerned.
That was before Leigh got itchy feet and as well as losing her, I lost her family
They used to invite me along but without Leigh there, I didn’t feel as if I belonged.
She stands next to me on the sand, hands on hips, the wind ruffling her hair as she looks at the horizon.
“Happy days,” she says. “It’s good to have those memories.”
Her husband, Tom, appears at the top of the path.
“Shall I light the barbecue yet?”
“Yes.” She waves at him. “Get it going.”
“You’re staying?” I’m pleased.
“Of course I am. But say if you mind and we’ll go somewhere else.”
I hug her. “Of course I don’t mind. Why didn’t you say you were coming?”
“Because you would have worried about being in the way and you’re not.”
“But a barbecue? In this weather?”
“Why not? It’s dry and we’ll be out of the wind. It’ll be fun!”
She sounds just like her mum.
The surprises keep on coming. Patrick arrives with beer and wine and a large bunch of flowers.
“You didn’t really think I was going fishing, did you? I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one.” He shudders at the thought. “I had to think up an excuse to go out. I knew if I said I was going shopping, you’d have come with me.”
“Well, make the most of the peace and quiet while you can,” Leigh says as she refills my glass. “Come the weekend, you won’t be able to hear yourself think.”
“I don’t mind a bit of noise.”
“A bit?” Leigh laughs. “Dogs barking, kids screaming. There’ll be barbecues on the beach and music playing.”
It sounds wonderful, like seaside trips of old. I had no idea people would come to the beach in winter.
“Well,” she says. “I didn’t expect you to cry about it.”
Should I admit how much I miss my family, from Mum going on about her bunions to little Stacie showing me her wobbly teeth or Trevor the Labrador who has a thing about licking my ankles, or would it make me sound ungrateful?
I’m not sure if seeing lots of other people on the beach will just make me miss them more.
“So,” Leigh says. “If I say all your family – and I mean every last one of them – is coming up on Friday night to spend the last week here with you, is it going to spoil everything?”
“No! Really? That’s… that’s wonderful. I can’t believe it.”
“Told you she’d love it, Leigh,” he says because I’m laughing and crying and can’t get any more words out.
He puts his arms around me and pulls me into the cosy warmth of his embrace.
“I am right, aren’t I?” he whispers a little uncertainly.
“You’re right,” I say.
I love him so much. And this friend of mine, Leigh, I love her so much too. Trust her to remind me who I really am.
I’m Mum, Granny, Babe, Millie and Amelia. I’m all of those people, all of the time… and I love it.