The road stretched straight into the distance where, beyond a picket fence ankle-deep in white sand, beyond dunes and the flat hard strand, the sea was waiting for her.
Surely, one should be joyous, drawn by such a view, Bella thought as she walked past large seaside villas resplendent on both sides of the street. She knew she should be seduced by the sight of shore, sand, and endless horizon.
And yet the sea looked heavy, a hostile presence, and, on the front, an old ice cream kiosk crumbled, was derelict and sad, beaten by the weather. But she willed herself to keep going, to press on down the avenue past the neat gardens and box hedges to the place where happiness had once chimed with the sound of tumbling waves and sunny laughter. For somewhere in her memory, under the closed lid of childhood, somewhere by the sea, lay the truth of what happened on that last sun-drenched family holiday, on the day at the beach at the end of Ocean View Avenue.
‘Whoever named this road must have been a foreigner,’ Mother had said, earlier, from her high-backed armchair in the corner. ‘Australian or something European. One of those people who come over here and take all the jobs and the houses. Definitely not English.’
Bella set a heavy cardboard box down on top of the stack, forming a barrier across the centre of her Mother’s small sitting room.
‘Sorry, I didn’t catch that.’ Bella straightened up and rubbed the small of her back. There were still two more boxes to unpack in the kitchen, and then she must start on the bedroom. Pots and pans; knickers and bras.
‘I think it ridiculous,’ said Mother, balancing a tea cup in tapering fingers, the saucer slipping precariously against geriatric skin. ‘We say the sea. The sea. We never say ocean.’
‘It’s the Atlantic, I suppose,’ offered Bella.
‘I may be blind but I’m not stupid,’ Mother snapped. ‘I know it’s the Atlantic, Bella. But this road should be called Sea View Avenue.’
But Bella was distracted by the removal man tapping on the French window of the ground-floor flat, ready for the off. She rummaged in her purse, opened the glass door, and pressed a twenty-pound note into his hand.
‘How much are you giving him?’ Mother asked loudly, her lips pursing forward to locate the rim of her cup.
Bella knew that, unseeing, the old woman often thought herself unseen and was all bland-faced innocence, even as her mouth chewed on the next bite of vitriol. She also missed nothing. Bella smiled an apology to the man and quickly shut the door.
The breeze had picked up, salt in the air, a clean, cold scent even on the warmest days. She wanted to let it in, to purify the rooms, allow the walls to breathe, bring the magnolia to life. But Mother did not like it, for it blew her hair the wrong way.
When Bella had signed the conveyancing papers at the solicitor’s she’d wondered if the apartment in the little block of retirement flats in the seaside town where they used to come on holiday would be good enough for Mother. The flats were brand-new, purpose-built, in a secluded area away from the main sands, the arcades, and the kiss-me-quicks. The quieter, wilder beach where they’d set up camp with stripy windbreak, Thermos flasks, and gritty sandwiches was right there, at the end of the avenue. Surely it would please Mother to be so close to the sea.
Even as Bella turned from the window to gaze at Mother’s blind blue stare, she knew that Mother was never pleased, was always waiting for something else, a better version of everything. Perhaps, Bella thought, as she eased the empty cup from Mother’s hands, she was waiting for a better version of her.
‘We always said the sea,’ Mother said, clinging to her argument. ‘I’m going to the sea. I can see the sea. We would sing it to you girls on the back seat. We’d tell you to look for it and start singing it as soon as you spotted it. I can see the sea… I can see the sea…’
‘Girls?’ asked Bella.
‘All I’m saying is it should be Sea View. Sea View.’ Mother’s mouth clamped shut, her lips disappearing.
Bella stripped the tape off the top of a box. ‘Did we bring a friend with us when we came here on holiday?’ she asked. ‘I can’t remember.’
Some things she did remember: the sound, the smell, the enormity of the sea, the vast horizon, a source of glittering light. The wide beach and the towering white sand-dunes, following the little pathways, the tight gullies through them, up and down, making the game, weaving the story, losing herself. A lady, strolling past, in bikini and dark glasses, a huge sunhat, ribbons flying. Seagulls patrolling above, the unexpected spikes of grass, the shifting sand, grit in her mouth; the essence of the summer.
‘You were very young,’ said Mother, and her features weakened briefly; for a moment, she looked like a mother.
A sick feeling dissolved Bella’s stomach and she scrunched sticky tape in her fist. Riding this feeling was a memory with no shape or substance and so, in one startling moment, it passed, leaving her momentarily exhausted.
When Bella’s father died, Mother had talked constantly of the seaside town, reminiscing, conjuring the past. And that was why Bella chose the avenue. It was lined with Victorian sea-captain’s houses topped by widow’s watches, 1950s villas with porthole windows, and who-knows-what fine Georgian mansion knocked down to build the Sunset Retirement Flats.
‘We’ll soon have this place ship-shape, Mother,’ Bella said valiantly, her words rising with uncertainty as she looked around at the stack of boxes. ‘I’ll finish unpacking this one, then I’ll make another cuppa.’ She had a quick look inside the box: framed photos secured in bubble wrap, vases, trinkets, old paperbacks, her parents’ wedding album. ‘Actually, I think it’s meant for the bureau in the bedroom.’
A photograph had come loose, the type Bella hardly ever saw anymore, for most of her own pictures were trapped in the ethereal, intangible universe of the web. It was a print, something she could hold in her hand. A baby, in black and white.
‘Aha, it’s me.’
Mother moved her face towards her voice. ‘What’s that?’
‘Ha! I’m wearing one of those knitted caps, the type of pattern in the old Woman’s Weeklies you used to have. Fastened by a button under my chin. Did you knit that, Mother?’
‘I knitted everything. Although with my sight, that’s all on the scrapheap now.’
Bella walked away from the martyred sting of her words, lugging the box out of the room and into the bedroom. She set it down on the faded pink candlewick bedspread the removal men had kindly spread over the bed, for the stains on the mattress were like yellow ink spreading over blotting paper.
‘What about that cuppa, Isobel?’ came the cry from the sitting room. ‘I’m parched.’
‘Just a moment, Mother.’
Bella allowed herself a curious smile. Mother only ever called her Isobel when she was angry with her; riled up about something. A tea bag put into the bin when it was still steaming; she did not like condensation inside the lid. Or perhaps Bella had left the soap the wrong way up in its dish. Funny how Mother knew these things when she had the eyesight of a mole. But this time, Mother did not sound angry when she called out Isobel; merely dull and sad.
A gang of seagulls settled on the roof of the house opposite, lifting their heads, their throats open. What a racket they made: the backdrop to holidays, to ice cream and seaside. Bella lifted the wedding album out of the box, set it on top of the bureau and stole a quick peek at the formal young couple: Mother in lace, Dad in sharp suit and thin tie. In the stuffy room, amid the boxed-up chaos of her parents’ past life, the seagull cries turned mournful, keening with despair.
Dad had never called her Isobel but had once called her Ellie-Bella, shouting the scrambled name through sheer terror when Bella strayed too close to the kerb one day near home. At eight years old, the word Ellie had meant nothing to her, and she’d giggled Dad’s blunder away. But the word had silenced her parents for at least an hour.
The seagulls shut up and, in the emptiness, Bella longed for the end of the day, for her Mother to be happy. But there was still so much to do. She should put the kettle on, find the sandwiches she’d packed that morning. She’d need to go and buy milk. Was the fridge even switched on?
Another loose photograph lay at the bottom of the box. Bella supposed it had never been mounted or framed because it was hazy, out of focus, not good enough. She squinted at a huge pram, the type wheeled by nannies in old films. This pram had two hoods, one either end with two faces peeking around: young, identical, soft with innocent joy. Both babies in knitted bonnets. The focus was so bad, Bella could hardly recognise herself and she certainly did not know the other child. She slipped the print into her pocket and went through to the kitchen.
‘I should have tipped them forty pounds,’ she said out loud to herself. ‘Those lovely men have even switched on the fridge.’
Mother was at her side, had crept through in silence, feeling her way. Her presence engulfed, irritated the tiny kitchen.
Bella took a step away. ‘Do you remember that time Dad got my name wrong, Mother?’
‘He got a lot of things wrong.’ The old woman fumbled for the counter top. ‘Have you put that kettle on yet?’
Bella flicked the switch and, seeing Mother’s satisfied expression, her courage gave a little spin.
‘But why Ellie, Mother? Do you remember that? That time I nearly walked into the traffic. We don’t know any Ellies.’
A lone seagull swooped over the communal garden, its shadow darting across the lawn. Bella heard her own little-girl laughter in the sun-drenched dunes and, drifting behind her, following her, the giggles of another child.
Mother’s mouth was working, slack over her teeth. ‘Hurry up, kettle, I’m parched,’ she muttered.
‘It was like that thing that parents do,’ Bella ploughed on. ‘Say each child’s name until they get to the right one. You see, Mother, I found—’ She put her hand into her pocket, was surprised, expecting to have misplaced the photograph already.
‘The road was so busy,’ Mother said, her blank eyes wet and cloudy, her face rigid. ‘Dad was terrified of losing you as well. I told him, when you twins were born, that we’d get it wrong.’ She did not seem to know where Bella was standing, began talking to the wall. ‘Eleanor, Isobel. Ellie-Bella. The names slip so easily, one to the other.’
Bella watched the steam from the kettle spouting upwards. As it hit the ceiling and ballooned back down, a line straightened in her mind.
‘Mother, I found this photograph.’ Bella drew it from her pocket and held it out, distracted by the futility of her gesture: it could have been a blank piece of card.
‘I know which one it is. He couldn’t take a photograph to save his life.’ Mother batted her hand towards it, the end of her fingernail catching the corner. ‘He got it wrong that day, on the beach down there. Dad blamed me. I blamed him. We both blamed you. But all of us: we lost her.’
Bella stopped when she reached the end of Ocean View Avenue, her shoes shifting on the sand that spilled from the dunes across the road. The beach was as it had always been: hillocks of sand topped by marram grass, little pathways between the dunes enticing her, this way or that, spaces for stories and tales and spectacular games.
Bella walked into the dunes, the tracks narrower now that she was grown-up, the sands benign and insignificant. The water in the distance was a haze of grey, and she took great gasps of clean air, the elusive sweetness of the sea, as if she could inhale truth. And, standing still, as a blast of air came off the sea, she remembered.
The happy holiday had been split in two, spoiled by shouting, urgency, an enormous policeman, his uniform petrifying Bella into somehow being able to splutter out what had happened.
Ellie had been behind her for she’d heard her running, chattering, laughing, until—
She had turned to see a stranger, a young woman in bikini and dark glasses, huge sunhat, ribbons flying, leading an excited Ellie by the hand away, away from her, out of the dunes and on to the front where the ice cream kiosk stood in the sun. Jealousy had bitten into Bella. Why couldn’t she go? She wanted ice cream too. She was left out; she was furious. And she had sat down, hidden herself in a cold cleft in the sand, where the sun could not reach, for at least half an hour, until she heard them calling: Ellie-Bella, Ellie-Bella!
When the policeman had stopped taking notes and the grown-ups had retreated into a boxed-in silence of dreadful acceptance, Bella had heard her father say, ‘They use a young lady, don’t they, offering ice cream? For what child would not go with a lovely young lady.’
Bella turned from the beach and her four-year-old self’s crime of hating the better version of herself, and slowly made her way back up Ocean View Avenue to the flat where Mother sat waiting, sightless, tragic, breathing old stale air.
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© 2018 Catherine Law
Author and freelance sub editor Catherine Law has known and loved Thanet for 25 years…so much so that she moved here in 2014.