The wind sock cracked the balmy Pacific air, and suddenly I was seven years old and Mum was wrestling the wet towels, flapping them over the side of the beach hut window, the Atlantic breeze buffeting the material like an invisible bull and Mum was the matador. My Mater-dor.
It was odd to be caught so geographically unaware. How far I was from my seven year old Self—in years and distance—and whilst I still dreamed bilingually, rarely was my homeland and history conjured during daylight hours. But I dreamed in British: the grass blades thinner, the seaweed slicker, the waters murkier.
When the sun shone, I seldom missed it. A glance at Facebook could catch me up on the recent unitings, spawnings, splicings and departures; but this surprising flash of summers as a goofy-toothed, gawky, Frecktilian, with wind-blown plaits and duck-like posture, made me oddly misty-eyed.
How strange the passing of years. How far removed and untouchable is yesterday, today. How I should love to bundle all those unappreciated days and hug them to me, soaking up the memories like the sun on my skin. Summers at the beach seemed so golden and luxurious then. As I stood swim-suited on the steps of our beach hut, my towel flapping against the wind like a superhero cape, held fast by the clenched fist at my throat, I would survey British Summer; I would watch the day-trippers walk shirtless along the prom, set up their nomadic settlements on my beach, and slowly roast their pale limbs to lobster shell pink.
Mum, never one for the sun, would read in the hut, always her eye on the shore line when I was crabbing, swimming or anywhere a current, or a stranger with sweeties, could sweep me away. She would call me in to eat lunch from the same plates she had eaten from as a child—sand-wiches, real wiches of sand, for no matter how careful she was, or how well the cutlery and crockery were cleaned, lunch would always be gritty. I recall the sun-warmed skin of ripe nectarines, the colour of Mum’s lipstick; the glossy orange flesh that—however sliced, bitten or sucked—would roll its sticky trail down my chin. Summer was nectarines. Summer was cheese and onion loaf, the gratinated cheddar and caramelized onion crust we would fight for and savour and dip into hot mugs of creamy tomato soup. Summer was fresh beetroot and iceberg lettuce. Summer was a small paper bag with 25p worth of Cola Cubes, of Pear Drops, of Sherbert Lemons, boiled sugary sweets scooped from huge glass jars.
The beach huts either side of ours buzzed with people. Families en masse, friends with their families, and their army of plastic inflatables and deck chairs that would colonize and encroach past the unmarked boundary of our beach hut turf. They would crack their metal beer caps on the stone lip of the wall, or pop chardonnay corks at lunch, and bring out platters of king prawns, flamingo pink with beady little black eyes. So odd to me at seven; so ordinary at thirty two. But more peculiar than plucking off crustacean heads and sucking on their bodies was the noise: the chatter, the constant non-stop sociability of adults; the concept of holidays with non-family members. I would listen to the hum and high-pitched laughter as I lay on the sea wall, close to their clique, cloaked by my towel and childhood invisibility.
A quarter of a century later, the beach scene is quite different, even if the little Frecktilian is still the same. Well, she’s not, of course, she’s been sweetened, then soured and now just is, ever-hopeful that life will taste good again.
And here, it is. Maybe it is the reminder of carefree youth. The wind sock, ripped slightly on one side by a pugnacious pelican, flaps wildly and calls me to adulthood. It does feel like I have been here before. Not geographically, of course; not the sights or experiences, but the feeling, a wild déjà vu of a familiar unfamiliar family scene. It is so glorious: the tangerine sun as it melts into the sun-sequined ocean; the lilac and pink fluffs of cloud on the horizon; the clink of wine glasses on the marble and the warm mellow of chatter, the occasional hoot of laughter, peeling into the breeze, carried off along the water. I look around and everything shimmers. In the background, the pale emerald whorls of the kitchen counter tops sparkle; the ornate Italian inlaid mahogany of the dining table glows; the glass, the tile, the polished bronze siren reaching up from the bottom of the spiral staircase to the twinkling crystal chandelier; and here, at my side, the smiles and gums and honey-tanned skins of my generous unrelatives.
My hostess shakes her linen napkin out—that maternal signature tune—and she places her arm around me,
“It’s so good to have you here, Eleanor honey. Here, have a shrimp.”
It’s funny the things that bring you back, those that take you forward, and those that just make you feel like you’ve come home.