Something awful’s happened to Granny Chilblains and now poor Mummy has to go all the way up to Scotland to look after her. Granny tripped over either the cat or the mat, I don’t know which and I didn’t like to ask in case they called me cloth ears. Anyway, Mummy says they are keeping Granny in hospital for weeks because she has actually broken her hip bone off. Daddy’s driving her all the way there and then he will come back tomorrow evening. William’s being left absolutely in charge and we all must do as he says. This afternoon Alice is going to collect me from school and we’re all to go and get fish and chips for tea and behave ourselves. I’m okay with all that, but Alice doesn’t like chips and James doesn’t like behaving. So, I think if we survive until Daddy gets home it will probably be a miracle!
Oh my God, it’s so unfair! Why is it always me who misses out! Just because stupid Granny can’t hold her drink and stupid James can’t be trusted, I had to miss netball tonight. And it’s the quarter finals! I was so humiliated at school today when I told Jane Mitcham I couldn’t play. The way she went on and on you’d think she was captain of the national squad not just St Cecilia’s C of E under 16’s. I bet they ask Millicent Forster to play Goal Attack. She’s been after my place on the team all year. Oh, it’s so unfair! And, and to make it worse I agreed to miss netball so I could pick Clara up from school so she’s not hanging about on street corners or getting abducted or anything because, let’s face it, Mum looked like she was about to lose it all together this morning, and would you believe it, we came through the front door and who’s home already? William! He said he was having a study period but he could have popped out and got Clara so I could have gone to the match. Her school’s only five minutes away. But no! he’s got to study, he’s going to university, he’s going to be a brain surgeon one day and you don’t see brain surgeons popping out to collect their baby sister in the middle of chopping someone’s brain in half. Apparently!
Argh! I hate my family.
Jeez they don’t ’arf go on. I weren’t even that late gettin’ ’ome and they still all had a go at me as soon as I got in the door. Like I care what they say anyway! ’Ow was I s’possed ta know. Dad said we all had to stick together going down the chippie. Anyway, it was a good job I was late ’cos otherwise we would a missed every’fing. When we came out the park, no one else was looking. The girls were singin’ some stupid song and Will ’ad his nose in his stupid book, so only I saw what ’appened. I was walking on the top of that really high wall, so I really did see it all proper like. This black car pulled out the turning. He was going really fast round the bend and drove right up the pavement and bang, whacked right into some poor little dog. He didn’t even stop. Like he just drove off. The poor ’fing was struggling and yelling like mad, then it lay down, dead quiet like. I shouted to the others and ran over. The poor dog was panting and there was blood ’round its mouth. ’fort it was dead or some’it, I stroked him, but he yelled when I touched his leg. He lifted his head an’ like licked my hand as if to say, ‘Oy, watch it. That really ’urts.’
I said we should take it to the vets or some’it, but Will said we couldn’t ‘cos like he weren’t ours and we only ’ad money for dinner, not for vet bills. For God’s sake, what did he want us to do? Walk off an’ leave the poor ’fing to die in the street while we went an’ got chips. An’ he says he wants to be a doctor?
We sat up half the night nursing that dog. I’ve never seen James cry, so it really got me when he said if we didn’t take it to the vet’s, I was its only chance of survival. We made a splint out of a stick and James’ school tie and carried it home on a stretcher made out of my blazer. Mum will go potty when she sees the state of it. I think it was suffering from shock more than anything, I don’t think that leg was broken, probably just badly bruised. I haven’t started Med School yet, so I don’t know for sure, but I did First Aid at Scouts. I told James that time would tell, but not to get his hopes up. That’s what they say on the telly. It seemed to keep him happy.
We took turns spooning sugar water into the corner of its mouth. I remembered it’s good for shock. James named him Charlie and went on and on about keeping him as a pet. He said Charlie was going to sleep on his bed and chase footballs and he’d teach him to bark at that bully in year 13, Kevin McDermott. He said they were going to be inseparable. Charlie just lay on the kitchen table and rolled his eyes. I think he’s got James already!
I worried what Dad would say when he got home and found we’d rescued a stray dog, even though he was kinda cute. And worst still, what would James say if he got up tomorrow and found it dead on the table. It wasn’t like James to care about anything much, which made me want to try all the harder for him.
Mrs Albright from over the road popped in about ten o’clock to check why all the lights were still on. We hid Clara and told her everything was fine. We didn’t mention the dog. Only when she asked if we’d had our tea did we realise we’d forgotten about the fish and chips. Suddenly I remembered how hungry I was.
Alice made tea and toast and we all sat around the kitchen table, with the dog laid out down the middle like some kind of furry table decoration. It was sort of nice all being together like that, all tired and deep in our thoughts, united in this little tragedy. The smell of the toast made Charlie’s nose wiggle and his ears pricked up. We cheered! He scoffed down the crust James gave him without even lifting his head, then another and another. Then Alice leaned over to give him hers but she must have leant on his bad leg. Charlie yelped and snapped at her and his big canine tooth caught the side of her hand. I don’t think he meant to, but she started screaming that he was savage and about getting rabies and tetanus and I had to remove her from the room before all hell broke out.
I told James that Charlie was on the mend and we should all go up to bed. I made the dog a bed on the kitchen floor from some old blankets and left him the rest of the toast. Alice took some calming down, but I gave her Aspirin and a plaster and promised to take her to A&E tomorrow for jabs if she needed them. As I closed her bedroom door, she told me that I would be held responsible if she died of blood poisoning during the night. If I’m honest, at that moment, it was a risk I was willing to take.
In the morning I came down early to check on my patient only to find Clara crying in the living room. The blankets in the kitchen were empty and cold. Charlie had gone. I asked Clara, but got no sense from her. Then I noticed the bolts on the front door were slid back and the chain was hanging down loose, even though I’d checked they were closed before I went to bed. Someone had opened the front door during the night. But who? I knew I hadn’t and Clara, too small to reach, couldn’t and James, besotted with the dog, wouldn’t. That just left...
Oh Alice, how could you?
The scratchy fabric on the chair tickled the backs of my legs.
‘Now, Clara, I need you to tell me everything that happened today.'
I frowned and slipped my hands under my thighs to stop the itch.
‘Is it ok if I call you, Clara?’
‘Sure Mrs…’ I squinted at the name printed on her badge, ‘PC Winter Bourn-e?’
‘Actually, its PC Winterbourne, but that’s a bit of a mouthful so you can call me Mary if you want. Now Clara, can you tell me exactly what happened?’
Fear prickled my spine; a bitter lump of anger blocked my throat. I really wanted to shout at her that it wasn’t my fault, to kick the stupid chair over, run out of the stifling stuffy grey room into Granny’s safe hug. But mum taught me that I must always to be polite to grown-ups and do what I was told. I wished I’d taken her advice earlier. I wish I’d thought about the consequences but I’d dug that hole so deep that there’d been nowhere to go but to keep on digging deeper.
I smiled away the tears. ‘Yes, ok, thank you, Mary. I will do my best to explain.’
‘My name is Clara Burns. I’m 9 and a half years old. I live in Islington, London with my Mum and Dad and two brothers William and James and my sister Alice’.
‘That’s okay, Clara, if you can just tell me what happened this afternoon.’
‘I thought I should tell you the why as well as the what.’
‘Is it relevant?’
‘I think so, I just want to explain the best I can.’
‘OK, go ahead then.’
I have two lots of grandparents. Granny Donks and Granny Chilblains.
Granny Donks lives near here in a little tumbling-down cottage by the sea. Grandpa lives there too but, somehow, we always call it staying at Granny’s. I think that’s probably because she does all the caring for us and Grandpa’s mostly down his shed. He’s really lovely and quiet, Dad says it’s because he hardly gets a word in edgeways living with Granny. My other Granny is Granny Chilblains. She is my mum’s mum and lives a long way up the north near Scotland where it’s always raining and cold. We don’t see much of her, she’s quite grumpy and smells like cats. Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have said that, sorry! That was quite rude of me. Chilblains is not her real name. I don’t think anyone actually ever caught chilblains staying at her house, but it always feels like it’s an option.
At summer half term William, James, Alice and me always stay at Granny Donks’ house whilst Mum and Dad go to Portugal. They say they go to play golf. Dad says it’s really to get a bit of peace and quiet; Mum says it’s to soak up the sun; James says it’s to soak up the Sangria. When I asked James what Sangria was, he said I was too young to know. He always says I’m too young to know, or too young to join in, or too young to understand. He’s a big teaser, and is always really mean to me.
William is the oldest. He’s going away in September to learn how to be a doctor. He’s really clever and kind and is the best of us all. I definitely love him the most. Am I allowed to say that?
James is a clown and will do almost anything for a laugh, even if someone else gets hurt. Mum says he suffers from being the middle child but I don’t see him suffering much. He has William to be brothers with, playing football, climbing trees, doing boy’s stuff, and then he has Alice. Alice is like his twin. There’s just eleven months between them so they were always the babies together, with matching jumpers and a double buggy. I’d love to be in his place with the others sandwiched on either side of me. I think it must feel safe. Alice can be lovely when she wants to. She’s good at art and making things. We sometimes do craft and baking together but she says it’s not fair that she gets stuck looking after me just because she’s a girl. I’m six years younger than Alice, which feels like a really big gap. I once heard Granny Chilblains say that I was an afterthought. Mum says that coming along so late means I’m special. James says it means I was a mistake. He likes to make me feel like I’m a mistake.
Donks isn’t really Granny’s name. She was called that by some of the older cousins years ago, because there are donkeys in the field next to her garden. The name got passed down through the grandchildren until it was just what everyone called her. We’ve got loads of cousins and second cousins and second cousins twice removed. I don’t actually know what twice removed means. I don’t want to ask because they’ll all roll their eyes and laugh at me for not knowing. Is it like if their parents are divorced or something?
The cousins are all mostly much older than us, some are proper grown-ups with babies and jobs and everything. The ones who turned up at Granny’s on the day before our visit are twin boys who are a year older than William and at university, and a girl, Jennifer, who is a bit older than Alice. I’ve only met them a couple of times before at family parties and weddings. They aren’t like close family or friends to us. What I mean is they might be my cousins but I don’t really know them. Am I allowed to say that? Am I allowed to say that I don’t really like them?
Last week when we arrived at the cottage Granny and Grandpa rushed out to the car and were whispering with Mum and Dad for a long while before we were allowed to get out of the car for hugs and kisses. I heard Grandpa say that the cousins had broken-up early and decided to pop down for a surprise visit. Because Granny is lovely and could never say no to anyone, she told them it was all fine and they were very welcome, but I could see she was in a proper flap as she talked to Mum about them. She even apologised to us for the mix up, as if it was her fault. She said if we all didn’t mind squashing up a bit, she was sure we would muddle through. Of course, we said we didn’t mind. We didn’t want to upset her.
It turned out that even though we were the proper guests and they the ones who turned up unannounced. The rules of first come first served meant the squashing up was all ours. Poor Granny and Grandpa slept on an air bed on the tiny sitting room floor. William and James topped and tailed in Granny and Grandpa’s lumpy old bed, with William complaining about James’ smelly feet, and I slept on a squeaky camp bed jammed down in the narrow space between our soft fluffy twin beds. Jennifer kicked her grumpy little Jack Russell off her bed onto mine, where it growled and snapped at my feet every time I dared move. These spoilt, selfish cousins didn’t seem to notice the squashing and the washing and Granny looking harried and terse. They ate and ate and never picked up or offered to help. When they weren’t running Granny ragged, they were making a slave of me with their Clarey bring me a fresh glass, Clarey change the tv channel, Clarey be an angel and fetch my jumper. When I told them my name was Clara not Clarey they asked me if I was sure about that, then laughed. I was surprised that James and Alice found it so funny too and joined in calling me Clarey all week. They joked and teased me endlessly, but when I got angry they exclaimed, ‘Why are you getting upset, Clarey? We was only joking!’
Alice and James were completely caught up in their spell and soon ignored me and my pleading to go to the beach or build a camp in favour of shopping in town and chasing the poor donkeys around the field on an old moped they’d found in the garage. Even William, who Mum always said was a really sensible, was in awe of these older, more sophisticated boys, with their university ways and evenings down the pub. A pub! and without a grown up and even after Granny made her feelings perfectly clear with her raised eyebrows and her tut-tutting.
My absolute favourite holiday, the holiday I’d been wishing for and dreaming about for the whole year was all going horribly wrong and it was all because of those horrid cousins.
The last day of the holiday is always special. We always go to Charforth Beach which is a bit of a way away from the cottage, so it’s a faff because we have to take a huge picnic and pack up the car with blankets and deck chairs, but it’s really worth the effort.
You might know it, there’s a little stream that comes down from the cliffs and winds across the beach out to the sea. We always get there really early to make sure we get the best spot. We spend the day digging the stream out to make a pool with a dam and high walls which we decorate with pebbles and shells. The pool fills up quickly, the water is warm and soft and we can paddle up to our knees, or even swim a little if we dig it down deep enough. Granny says all we need is blue sky and a bucket, but even if its chilly it doesn’t matter because it’s such a busy fun day. We all work hard together and there’s never any bickering. Granny sits like the Queen of Sheba on her deckchair, dishing out food and encouragement. Grandpa rolls up his trousers and, with a hanky knotted on his bald head like a crown, inspects the work, pointing with his walking stick where we need to make improvements or plug up a hole.
The most amazing thing is that at the end of the day the sea washes away all our efforts and lays the sand back flat and perfect again. It’s like we had never been there. Like we never existed. In the big scheme of the world I suppose we are pretty small and insignificant and don’t really matter or make much of a mark. I really thought about that a lot earlier today.
Today was the day we went to Charforth. I got up especially early this morning. I was so excited it felt like I had champagne fizzing through my veins (or what I imagine champagne fizzes like). The vicious little dog snapped at me as I got up, but today I didn’t care. I pulled a face at him and stuck out my tongue as I jumped down onto the floor, slamming the door shut quickly behind me before he could nip my ankles. I headed downstairs to find Granny already in her pinney, flour on her face, bread rolls cooling on racks, cupcakes in their paper cases ready to slide into the hot oven as soon as the chicken came out.
‘Morning, sweetie, you’re up early.’
‘I couldn’t stay in bed a minute longer. I’m so excited. Can I lick the bowl please?’
‘Hugs and kiss for Granny first, then you can have the bowl. Ooooo.’ She squeezed me tight. ‘Such a scrumptious bum, don’t spoil your breakfast now’.
I took the sticky bowl over the table and replaced the worn old wooden spoon for a rubber spatula. If I’d learnt anything in my nine and a half years it was how to maximise cake-mix recovery from Granny’s giant mixing bowl. I got lost for a while remembering that Dad probably sat at that very same table, licking that very same bowl when he was a small boy too. It made me smile and filled my heart with missing him at the same time.
I helped Granny clear up, packing the rolls and cakes away into the big wicker picnic hamper. The giant tartan flask stood next to an enormous metal teapot on the draining board, ready to be made fresh just before we left. I laid the table for breakfast and started manning the toaster, dropping piece after piece onto a giant platter as the horrid twins came in. Soon James and William arrived, followed by Alice and Jennifer, all talking and eating cereal and toast quicker than I could produce it.
‘For god’s sake, Clara, don’t leave it in so long, its burning.’
‘Call that toast, Clarey? Its paler than Jennifer’s legs.’
Hurry up, Clarey, we’re starving here. You’re making a right dog’s dinner of that.’
‘I’d do it myself, but why have a dog and bark yourself?’ The twins and James laughed loudly at their joke and began barking and growling at me to hammer home their point. I wanted to tell them to grow up or do it themselves but I couldn’t escape. They’d all pushed their chairs out because of their long legs and their inability to sit up properly on a chair. I was trapped unless I plucked up the courage to ask them to excuse me, which I couldn’t do in case they teased me or worse, ignored me and made me suffer the humiliation of asking and being ignored again.
I squeezed into a gap between Alice and James and helped myself to a piece of toast to stay busy whilst I waited for them to clear off. They were all so big and loud. I tried hard to remember something from school about things being bigger than the sum of their parts, but I couldn’t remember the saying. I was happily lost in my day-dream when the older twin spotted me and, nudging the others to be quiet, asked me what I was gawping at. I was jolted back into the kitchen.
‘I, I wasn’t gawping,’ I stuttered.
‘You were, Clarence. You were staring at me with your mouth wide open. I could see you chewing your toast.'
The others giggled.
‘I was thinking about the principles of physics,’ I lied, trying to stand up straight and look more confident than I felt. Actually, he was right I had been staring. I was staring at a great angry pimple on the side of his neck, trying to decide whether it would be better to pop it with one of Granny’s sewing needles or give it a good old squeeze, but I couldn’t admit that.
William jumped to my rescue. ‘So, what’s the plan for today everyone?’
‘It’s Charforth. We’re making the pool, silly,’’ I announced, a little over confident now I felt William had my back
‘Do-oh! We’re not digging a baby pool with you,’ butted in James. 'We’re going surfing this morning and then fossil hunting after lunch.’
‘Oh, but we always make the pool.’ My voice sounded thin and whiney. ‘Alice and I will make it on our own then. Will you help us, Jennifer?’ I turned to her trying to be friendly and inclusive.
Huh?’ She looked horrified.
‘I’m not a baby like you, Clara. Jenny and I are going to sun bathe today.’
‘Be careful, Alice,’ I retorted. ‘People might think a whale got beached on the shore again.’
The room fell suddenly silent. The heat of their combined stare reddened my face and embarrassment filled my eyes with tears. Alice’s chair scrapped back as she stood up, her face white and taut
‘You horrid little monster! I hate you!’ she spat at me.
Jennifer rose wrapping her arm around Alice’s shoulder.
‘Don’t listen to that little brat, Ali. You’re not that fat. Come away darling. I’m here now’. She guided her carefully out of the kitchen like the victim of a violent crime.
The younger twin shook his head at me. ‘Blimey, you’re a little bitch all right. I know your sister’s a bit of a porker, but that was completely out of order.'
The older one just guffawed with laughter.
William glared at me. He didn’t jump up or shout or show any outward sign of anger but I could see that his eyes had gone cold and hard. He shook his head and quietly, so quietly I could barely hear him, whispered, ‘Really, Clara? That was completely out of order. I’m very disappointed with you.’ He left the room rubbing his head with the palms of his hands. His quiet words struck me harder than the others loud exclamations. I scrambled around the abandoned chairs running to hide in the bathroom.
I had a good cry. I was ashamed of what I’d said and I was a good bit sorry for it, but I was also upset and shaken by their reactions. Alice was being such a drama queen. What I’d said was no worse than any of them had said to me during the week. It was positively tame by James’ standards. Just thinking about it again brought on a fresh flood of tears. Mum always says its better out than in, but no amount of sobbing made me feel any less wretched. They’d been picking on me all week. It wasn’t fair that I wasn’t allowed to defend myself just once.
Granny was calling everyone down to the car. I wiped my eyes, blew my nose and hoped Alice had moved onto a new drama by now. I slunk out to wait by the front passenger door of Grandpa’s car, quietly watching the twins wrestle bags and blankets onto the little bench that called itself a back seat in their pretty little sports car. Apparently, Jennifer was coming in Grandpa’s car with us which would mean we couldn’t take our usual places. Everything was upside down and out of joint this week. I felt unsettled and confused. The others bowled out of the house, laughing and seemingly over this morning’s incident. But then Alice took one look at me and turned away walking with Jennifer to hang over the fence to pet the donkeys. James came towards me, smiling cheekily. He was well practiced at being in the dog house. I thought he was going to give me some good advice about joking your way out of it, but Jennifer beckoned to him, flashing a lot of thigh. He swivveled on his heel and joined them on the fence shooting me a look of triumph as he flicked a donkey on the nose, sending it honking away across the field. Whatever Jennifer whispered caused them both to shoot me angry looks. I knew they were talking about me. They turned their backs laughing loudly, stroking the donkeys until Grandpa and William came out carrying the hamper and the flask.
Granny, Jennifer and James were arranged on the back seat with the hamper and the flask on their laps. Alice usually sat where Jennifer was and I usually had pride of place squished on the front seat laughing and singing with William and his long legs. Alice flinched as she walked past me towards the front passenger seat. If you didn’t know better you might have thought I’d bitten her this morning.
William called to me. ‘Clara, you’d better get in the boot with the dog.’ He pointed towards the open hatchback.
‘Don’t argue, Clara. Alice is coming in the front with me.’
‘But that’s my spot, squeezing in the front with you.’
‘Don’t whine, Clara. You’ve made it clear you’re not a baby anymore, so don’t behave like one.’
I was so taken aback by his harsh words that I couldn’t speak. My heart felt numb. Why was he being so mean to me. I’d not done anything to hurt him.
‘Just do as you’re told for once, will you?’
He didn’t offer me a lift up or a hand as I struggled to climb up into the little boot, perching on top of a pile of deckchairs and the windbreaker. Not a look or a smile, not even a ‘watch yourself’ as he slammed the door down, catching me hard on the shoulder. The evil little dog curled his lip at me in warning. I wanted to stretch my legs out but I daren’t in case he bit me. I wanted to cry and shout out that I was sorry, but I couldn’t in case somebody heard me. Hot bitter tears streamed silently down my cheeks.
It was no surprise that the little red sports car reached the beach before we did, the hand brake no sooner pulled up tight before bodies and blankets flowed out in a wave of chatter and activity. The little dog shot me a withering look before it hopped over the backseat to join his mistress in the busy throng. I was left stranded in the hot boot space, unable to escape until someone opened the door. After what felt like an age Granny remembered me.
‘Oh, sorry, Clara dear. We nearly forgot you were in here.’
I sobbed again feeling forgotten and ignored.
‘Now, now, Petal, don’t cry its nothing to be getting upset over.’
‘But they all hate me.’
‘No, they don’t hate you. They might not like you very much at the moment, love, but they don’t hate you. They’ll soon get over it, you’ll see, and then you’ll all make up and be friends again.’
‘Can’t you make them be nice to me, Granny?’
‘I can’t take sides or fight every battle between you kids, now can I, pet, and well, from what William told me you did say a very mean thing to your sister. You know how sensitive she is about her weight
She gave me a hug and wiped the tears away with the soft, sweet smelling hanky she kept tucked up her sleeve.
‘It will blow over by lunch time, and probably sooner if you go and apologise. A bit of time in Coventry isn’t going to do you any harm. Now wipe your nose and grab that deckchair.’
I took Granny’s advice and got to work trying to be happy and helpful, only to have my efforts ignored. In the end I took myself off for a sulk on top of a little outcrop of rocks. As soon as Granny and Grandpa were comfortably enthroned on their deckchairs the other disappeared screeching and laughing down to the shoreline. I was left alone. Again.
There seemed no point trying to dig the pool myself. I didn’t have the engineering knowhow or the man power. Most of all I’d hate for them to mock my efforts when they came back. I tried building a few sandcastles but they were council estate slums compared with the rambling fairy tale palaces that James usually created, all turrets and individually carved facias. I kicked the sorry street into oblivion with my angry heels, digging and twisting my feet deep into the sand. I found I’d formed a shallow pit but the crumbly sides kept sprinkling down like charging spiders every time I moved. I paused, thinking about the problem for a moment. Yes, I knew what I needed to do. I cleared the dry surface away to reveal the cool wet sand below, dark, shining with flecks of quartz and the worn remains of a thousand little lives.
After an hour’s hard digging the handle of my spade started to crack. I ran across to the pile left abandoned at the edge of the blankets to find a stronger one.
Grandpa peered over the top of his newspaper at me. ‘You’re keeping busy over there, Pet.’
‘Yes, Pops. I’m digging a hole.’
‘No paddling today?’
‘Hush, Peter!’ Granny swiped him with her Women’s Weekly.
‘D’ya need a hand from an experienced old miner? I’m pretty handy with a pick.’ He winked at me and I laughed back at him, remembering he had been a school teacher all his working days.
‘No thanks, Pops, I think I can manage by myself.’
‘Well, you know where I am if you change your mind. I only charge two and six an hour.’
I ran back towards the hole calling, ‘cheap at half the price,’ over my shoulder.
A sense of achievement flowed up into my chest as I jumped down into the cold dark void. I was impressed! The hole was already knee deep and just wide enough that I could sit in it with my knees pulled in tight to my chest. I stood up, gazing out to sea whilst I formulated the plan of action for phase two of the build. I needed to widen it so that I could sit inside comfortably and I wanted it deep enough so the top of my head was level with the beach. Whilst I mulled this over, I watched the others cavorting about in the surf. Their bodies dark silhouettes against the bright sun filled sky and glistening sea. Alice spotted me watching them, she stood statue like staring back for the longest of whiles. I waved wildly with both arms hoping she’d see me half in and half out of the hole and wonder what I was up to. Hoping she’d see that I was sorry and sad that we’d fallen out; hoping she’d see how much I loved and missed her. She hesitantly raised her hand level to her shoulder and I think was about to wave when Jennifer charged across grabbing both of her hands, spinning her around to look out to the horizon. She wrapped her arm around Alice’s shoulder. I could sense her dripping poison into Alice’s ear.
‘Come away darling. You’ve got me now.’
Tears welled in my eyes. Hurt bubbled through the veins that only a few hours ago fizzed with excitement for the perfect day to come. I felt hopeless and completely alone. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and why they were being so mean. Why were these cousins so determined to push my brothers and sister away from me? I felt wretched. I was alone and unloved, excluded, cast out, mocked, despised. I didn’t know why but there was one thing I did know. I knew I hated those cousins.
I sat down in the shallow hole and wished that it would just swallow me up. I didn’t want to live in a family where I wasn’t wanted anymore. I didn’t want to live in a world where I wasn’t loved. I wished the soft dry sand would scramble in over me, roll me up and take me down to where the cockles and worms lived. Crumble me up and disperse me until I was no more than little flecks of shell. The sea would glide in to flatten the bumps, wash away all trace of the hole; wash away all trace that I’d ever been there. They would be so much happier without me.
Only when I noticed that the front of my t-shirt was soaking wet did I realise that I was crying again. Huge fat tears plopped off my chin darkening the pink cotton of my top. My breath was rattling out of my chest leaving me shuddering, eyes raw and swollen, streaks of snot and sand running in rivulets down my face. I peered over the top of the hole to see the others gathering their belongings down on the shoreline. I couldn’t let them see me like this, see my hurt and pain or worse, ignore what they had caused.
I grabbed my hat and damp cardigan and ran as quickly as I could through the soft deep sand to the base of the cliffs. A big rock jutted out. Once I was around it, I knew I would be lost from sight. Lost from them for good. I decided there and then I was leaving and never coming back. I thought they probably wouldn’t notice that I’d gone, and if they did, well they’d probably be glad.
I remembered that there was a little cave at the far end of the beach. It was a long way and hard going through the deep dry sand, but I had to keep close to the cliffs to avoid the other day-trippers who littered the beach. As I walked, I tried to remember the main points we covered on my Brownie wilderness badge. First, find shelter, tick. That would be the cave. Second, build a fire. I didn’t have any matches or a gas stove or anything, but there was plenty of drift wood and dry crinkly seaweed stranded high above the tide line. We’d read about starting a fire by rubbing sticks together but, being girls, it wasn’t deemed necessary for us to put the skills into practice. I added Brown Owl to the ever-growing list of people who’d let me down.
Number three, food. Well the sea was my oyster, quite literally! I laughed to myself. If I got desperate, I could always scavenge behind the café or in the car park bins. Clothes might prove a problem but I knew how to knit thanks to a wet weekend at Granny Chilblains. I could make needles out of a couple of driftwood sticks and knit up some seaweed whilst it was wet and supple. I’d look like a sea urchin, but I’d survive.
I laughed at myself, hearing James’ mocking voice in my head. Not a sea urchin, stupid. A street urchin. A sea urchin’s a…
Yes, thank you, James, but if I’m the one living rough on the beach. I’ll decide whether I’m a sea urchin or not!
The cave was smaller than I remembered, strangely smelly, cluttered with beer bottles and cigarette butts.
The walls, where not swathed in slimy green algae, were decorated in rude graffiti. This would not do, not do at all. I sat on the filthy littered sand and cried and cried until there wasn’t a tear left in me. It was hopeless.
I woke to hear a strange voice calling my name. No, not a stranger’s voice, but not a familiar one. It was the oldest cousin.
He poked his ugly head with his stupid sticky up hair into the entrance of the cave. In his hand he held the red cardigan I’d left out on the rock to dry in the sun.
‘There you are, Clarence. What on earth are you doing in here?’
‘God, it stinks. Did you piss your pants?’
‘No! Don’t be so mean to me.’
‘Nooo. Don’t be so mean to me,’ he mocked back in a baby voice. ‘Come on. Hurry up.’
‘I’m not coming with you. I’m staying here.’
‘Don’t be daft. We’ve been searching for you all afternoon. We’ve not been allowed to have lunch.’
‘And I’m starving.’ He pulled a ‘poor me’ puppy dog face, sticking out his bottom lip, tilting his head to one side. Idiot!
‘Wow, I’m going to be such a hero for finding you. Come on.’
He grabbed me by the arm, yanking hard.
‘Ouch! Don’t do that!’ I pulled sharply away, falling heavily against the jagged rock face. Small beads of blood rolled up into the scrapped skin on my elbow. ‘Oww! You hurt me.’
‘I didn’t touch you. You tripped. Jen’s right. You are such a cry baby. Look at the state of you.’
‘Go away!’ I screamed.
He grabbed me, dragging me towards the entrance of the cave.
‘Stop wriggling, you little bitch. You’re already in so much trouble.’
I froze. ‘Trouble? Why am I in trouble? I’ve not done anything wrong.’
‘Yeah you are. Everyone’s out looking for you.’
‘Yeah, like the whole beach, the police. Even the coast guard are getting the boat ready in case you fell in the water.’
Trouble? I never expected to be in trouble. I wanted to disappear, not be the centre of attention.
‘I don’t know. Maybe they thought you’d been abducted or something. Shame you hadn’t, you little turd’
Losing patience, he picked me up physically, carrying me under his arm like a farmer carrying a piglet in a story book. I came out into the light kicking and screaming, face red and blotched, hair tangled, clothes stained with blood just as Granny and William walked around the rock calling my name.
Granny cried, ‘Oh, Clara. We’ve found you. You’re safe.’
The cousin dropped me unceremoniously face first into the sand. I scrambled into Granny’s deep hug.
‘Oh, honey. What happened to you?’
I looked up at the cousin grinning widely. The hero. Expecting adoration and gratitude.
The words just slid out of my mouth. ‘It was him. He took me.’
A look of confusion washed simultaneously across all their faces. The horror of my words taking longer to wipe the grin off his stupid gawping face.
‘What do you mean, darling?’ asked Granny quietly.
‘It was him.’ I pointed sharply so there could be no doubt. ‘He took me. And he touched me.’