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We’re going to the beach today. Again.
Charlie’s wearing his favourite blue shorts. He’s taller than me, but it doesn’t matter because he gets me things that are too high up. He’s my reacher.
‘But we go to the beach every day.’ His voice sounds like a squeaky bicycle.
‘Yes, sweetie, we’re on holiday, and that’s what you do when you’re on holiday.’ If Mum says so then it’s decided. I fetch my marble-pink bucket from next to the doorstep, where the sun has bathed it warm. If I was allowed I’d take my marble-pink bucket everywhere, even to bed. Mum says it’s dirty so it stays outside with the wellies.
Mum pulls a flowery hat over my head and asks Charlie again if he has put his sun-cream on. He says yes and when Mum turns her back he grins at me. He carries the spade and on the walk to the beach, we play a game called I’d love you no matter what.
I ask, ‘Would you still love me if I had three eyes and no nose?’
Mum’s holding my hand and she says, ‘I’d love you no matter what.’
Charlie asks, ‘Would you still love me if my fart was so bad that the cats died when they smelled it?’
Mum’s holding Charlie’s hand too and she says, ‘I’d love you no matter what.’
We know it’s coming. We’re pleased anyway. The walk to the beach is one long road but sometimes it takes hours and hours, especially on the way home. The air sticks to me like golden syrup. I have it on my toast every morning. Mum squeezes the bottle for me so I don’t have too much and get rotten teeth like Auntie Val. She keeps her pretend teeth in a glass by her bed.
We get to the beach and Mum puts our bottle-green blanket on the sand.
‘Can we go to the rock pools?’ I ask, before Mum can get out her book. She’s smearing sun-cream on my face. Her hands are soft. There’s sand between my toes.
‘You can go, I’ll come and find you when Dad’s here to watch our stuff, okay?’
We’re running before she’s finished speaking. Charlie’s ahead of me, like always. I never catch up but I chase him all the same. The bucket rattles in my hand as we weave in and out of other families. When Mum’s poorly she leaves behind a trail of snotty tissues. I imagine all the picnic blankets are Mum’s old tissues: we giggle when we run across them, and step on the corners by accident.
The tide is hours and lifetimes away and the rock pools look like mountains, volcanoes, moon-craters. Seagulls perch on the peaks. The pools contain whole worlds within. I want to climb inside them and live my life inside a shell. Me and Charlie balance on the edges and peer into the glassy water.
‘What shall we catch today?’ he says.
I love the crabs. I love their sideways wiggle and bulging eyes. I let them scuttle across the palm of my hand, they’re too small to bite me. Their shells are still soft and spongy so you have to be careful when you pick them up. I fill the bucket up with water and balance it on the rocks. A handful of sand in the bottom, a shell to make it homely. I want them to like me.
Charlie nudges a small rock in the pool, and a baby crab the colour of gunge scuttles out. ‘There, Jessie!’ he says, pointing.
I slip my hand into the water and my heart flutters up my chest but I’m too slow, the crab gets away. ‘It’s gone, I missed it.’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll find more.’
We move along the rock pools, inspecting each one, searching for treasure. We catch a crab. It’s beige but orange around the edges. We crowd over the marble-pink bucket to watch it slide from my hand, into the water, down to the bottom.
‘Cool,’ says Charlie.
‘What have you caught?’ Mum’s voice. She’s come to find us, just like she said she would.
‘It’s a crab, Mum, look, I caught it,’ I tell her.
‘I helped catch it too. Mum, can we catch a fish?’
‘I don’t know, can you?’
Charlie smiles because it’s a challenge and he love challenges. ‘I’m going to catch a fish.’
It takes Charlie hours to catch a fish. We stop for ice-creams halfway through. Vanilla for him, chocolate for me. Always chocolate. Mum takes a photo of us smiling, ice-cream around our mouths.
Dad’s reading the newspaper on our bottle-green blanket. He looks out from behind his sunglasses, raises one eyebrow and says, ‘Looking good, guys.’
Charlie finds a fish the size of my fingernail, which is pretty small, I guess. He tries to catch it with the bucket, but I’m worried about my crab. Then he uses his hands. We herd it into one corner of the pool but it disappears into the cracks. Mum comes over to see how we’re doing, and then says she has an idea. She walks back up the beach. We wait, impatiently.
She comes back with a blue net. ‘We’re borrowing this from a nice woman and her son, so be careful with it.’ She hands it to Charlie, and his smile looks like it’s going to crack apart his face. We crouch over the rock pool. Mum takes another photo.
Charlie’s like a bird of prey except he’s wearing spotty blue shorts. He darts the net in at just the right moment and then there’s a little fish squiggling in it. It’s so small I can nearly see through it. He lets it into the bucket, gently, by turning the blue net inside out.
‘I did it, I got it, I did it, I got it,’ he says over and over and over again.
The fish moves faster than my eyes can follow it.
‘You’ve got a whole ecosystem in there,’ Mum says.
‘What’s an ecosystem?’
Mum tells us about ecosystems. Charlie’s freckly and he also has sand on his face. It’s hard to tell what’s a freckle and what’s a grain of sand.
‘Right, what’s the time?’ Mum checks her watch.
Charlie says, ‘Why do you always have to know what the time is?’
Mum laughs, and the sound gets mixed up with waves breaking on the beach, they tumble together, over each other. Like an acrobat. Somersaulting from the top of the tent. ‘One day, you’ll both understand. You’re lucky you don’t have to worry about the time.’
But one day doesn’t mean much to us. It’s not an idea we hold on to. We let it slip away.
‘Why don’t we show your dad before we let them go?’
Charlie takes my hand and I take the bucket and we make our way up the beach. It must be late, the tide has swallowed some of the rockpools, and half the snotty tissue blankets are gone. Mum’s striding in front of us. Her legs are so long. I peek into the bucket just to check the echosystem’s still there.
‘Mummy. Help.’ I put the bucket down to get a better look.
I stick my hand into the water to try and help the fish. Charlie’s fish. He spent all afternoon trying to catch it. It’s wiggling like it did in the net. It’s stuck in the crab’s pincer.
‘Help,’ I say. My eyes are wet. Mum has realised something’s wrong but it’s too late already. Why does she have to take so long? The fish stops moving. One eye is staring right at me.
‘Oh dear. Poor fish,’ she says. She can’t fix it.
We walk back over to the rock pool and empty the bucket. I close my eyes so I don’t see the bits of dead fish or my little crab that’s become a monster and tripled in size.
‘Can we go home now?’ says Charlie.
He’s pretending not to be sad because big brothers aren’t supposed to get sad.
We come here every summer and Mum says she looks forward to it all year. She calls it her happy place. Then sometimes, when me and Charlie are being a pain in her backside, she says we are ruining her favourite two weeks of the year. We feel bad and we’re extra good until we forget again.
The journey down here takes most the day, and we set off before sunrise. Mum drives until Dad takes over because she’s too slow. I like watching the grey city turn into green countryside. Me and Charlie play games and make noise and Mum tells us we should get some sleep. We’re too excited. We stop somewhere for lunch and sometimes we have to walk around a cathedral or over some hills. Somewhere along the way, we can tune into BBC Radio Devon and it means we’re nearly there and me and Charlie sing BBC Radio Devon over and over and over again. Until Mum tells us to stop. We’re too excited.
Finally, in the afternoon, we pull up outside the cottage. Dad says the car smells funny and he’s in a bad mood from sitting in it for so long. Mum says we have to help carry the bags. But me and Charlie run from room to room, just to check it’s the same as we remember. It always is.
The beach is called Hope Cove, but we say it like it’s one word. Let’s go to hope-cove.
We’re not going to the beach today.
It’s a few days later and half-brother Jack has come to stay at the cottage. He’s in art school and he’s taller than me and Charlie put together, which is really tall. His hair is shiny black.
Charlie’s confused because we always go to the beach. Mum says she has a better idea, and then gets out a packet of ‘crab-lines’. They’re the shape of a capital H with black string wrapped around them. One is blue and Charlie grabs it. The other is pink so I guess it’s for me. They have silver hooks on them.
‘Be careful with the hooks. I’ve got some bacon and if we’re lucky we’ll catch some really big crabs.’
Half-brother Jack’s got a net, and he tells me to get the bucket. Mum drives us into town. Dad’s going to come and meet us later, maybe. There’s a big harbour in the town and it rises and falls with the sea. Mum says it’s called a key, except she spells it for us and it’s quay. The water’s about halfway up. It smells like rotting seaweed and bird poo. The sun’s hidden behind clouds and the air feels like there isn’t enough space to breathe.
Mum goes down steps covered in green seaweed to get close to the water and fill the marble-pink bucket up. Then she picks up raw bacon from a packet and tears it with her bare hands. She threads it onto the sharp hooks of our lines.
‘Now just unwind it and throw it into the water. Not the whole thing!’
Half-brother Jack laughs. He sits next to me with his legs dangling over the edge. Me and Charlie throw our lines into the water. They have circle weights on the end of them and I feel it find the bottom.
‘Now what?’ says Charlie.
‘Now we have patience,’ says Mum, and she strokes his hair. She’s wearing a long red skirt and a patterned top. Her hair is yellow with a tiny bit of grey at the top.
We sit on the side of the quay, feet over the edge. Charlie counts the boats: forty-two. People come and go behind us, some of them stop to check in our bucket. I tell them we have to be patient. But it doesn’t take long. The black line jerks in my hands.
‘Mum! What do I do?’
‘Pull it up, gently.’
So I turn the plastic H over in my hands and wind the black string up. As the end of the line appears, so does a big dark crab, chewing on the bacon. My palms are sweaty. Jack uses the net to scoop it up. He lets the crab into the bucket. It’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen in real life.
‘Cool,’ says Charlie. ‘This was a great idea, Mum.’
‘Yes, well, I’m very wise.’
The sun’s coming out now. Charlie catches one next and it’s even bigger than mine. It slides into the bucket and scrabbles around against the plastic before resting, half on top of my crab. They have legs like rusted metal nails. Their shells are hard and jagged around the edges. They really are monster crabs. I drop a little piece of bacon in for them. I want them to like me.
Mum gets out the sun-cream and makes us drink some water. She puts more pink bacon onto our lines and helps us lower them back in.
‘Are we fishing?’ says Charlie.
Mum says, ‘No, sweetie, you’re crabbing.’
I love crabbing. I could spend my whole life crabbing. Mum decides we need another bucket so she walks up the high-street to buy one. Jack tells us about the funny people at art school: a girl who can paint with her feet and always wears green, a teacher who tells you everything you do is rubbish. Mum returns with a matching marble bucket, but this one is blue. She fills it up. I put the next crab in there. It’s a small one with red eyes.
A family is walking past us and they look in the buckets, point at our crabs.
I tell them, ‘It was all my Mum’s idea, she filled up the buckets and she even put bacon on the hooks, raw bacon.’
The sun slips across the sky in a smudge of yellow. It nudges aside the clouds.
‘I’ve forgotten the camera.’ Mum’s rummaging through her bag. ‘Okay guys, you’re going to have to help me take a mental photo.’
‘What’s that?’ Charlie scrunches his forehead up.
‘It’s when a moment is so wonderful and golden, that you frame it and keep it in your memory forever. Everyone ready?’
We nod our heads.
‘Try and remember what it would look like if you painted it,’ says Jack.
I see the seaweed below, it pops like bubble wrap when you squeeze it between your fingers. I see my big brother, eyes crinkly and squeezed shut as he tries to memorise everything. His fingers gripping the crab-line. I see water. I would use grey, white and green if I tried to paint it. But the sun makes everything gold.
‘Done,’ says Mum. ‘I hope you remember this moment forever. This is a good moment.’
I love crabbing. I love it until I look in the marble-pink bucket.
‘Mum, fix it.’
She looks in the bucket. Charlie’s big, brutish crab has taken the shell off mine like a tin of baked beans. It’s using pincers to pass white, flaky meat into its mouth. My crab is being eaten alive.
‘Shit,’ Mum says.
She can’t fix it. So that afternoon we throw another bucket of dead things back into the water. We drive home and Mum opens the window and puts her favourite CD on. A woman singing about California. Mum asks me if I’m okay but I don’t reply. She says something stupid about the circle of life but I don’t reply.
That night after tea half-brother Jack draws a picture using his feet. He puts a red marker between his big toe and the one next to it, he draws a big crab eating a smaller crab and there’s a shiver up my back and I think the outline is burned on to my eyes forever.
‘Maybe we should stop catching crabs,’ I say to Charlie, in our bedroom, after Mum has turned the lights out. We sleep in twin beds next to each other. I like coming on holiday because I get to share a room with Charlie. ‘I don’t like them anymore, I don’t like their pincers. I wish they didn’t have pincers.’
He doesn’t reply. He’s already asleep. Rain is hammering against the window. I dream of rock pools, and pink buckets the size of planets, and I’m a tiny thing, smaller than a sea-monkey, hiding from monsters. There’s shouting in the night. It sneaks beneath the gap at the bottom of our door, with the yellow light, and stirs me from my sleep.
‘Charlie,’ I whisper. ‘Charlie?’ His breath is long and steady. He’s better at sleeping than me. The world is black and the parents shout but I remember morning always comes, no matter how far away it feels. I hold my favourite shell to one ear. The sound of the sea pulls me back under.
‘Can we go to Hope Cove today?’ asks Charlie.
We’re sitting at the kitchen table with Mum. It feels like we’ve been on holiday for years. Summer stretches out behind and before us. Two weeks is a really long time.
‘I thought you were bored of the beach?’
‘I could never be bored of the beach.’
We get our things together. Dad and half-brother Jack are going to watch the football in a pub. They might come and find us later. Mum says this like it isn’t really true. Charlie puts his favourite blue shorts but not his sun-cream on. He gets the spade. We’re standing outside the cottage, ready to go.
‘Aren’t you bringing your bucket?’ asks Mum. I shake my head.
‘Well, we’ll go and buy you a spade then.’ On the long walk, we go to a shop selling everything in every colour. I choose a red spade.
‘Would you still love Jessie if she turned into a red spade?’ asks Charlie.
Mum says, ‘I’d love her no matter what.’
It’s the hottest day so far. Mum hides behind sunglasses and a big hat. When we get to the beach she looks at me, like she’s waiting for something. ‘Aren’t you going to the rock pools?’
I shake my head.
At the side of the beach there’s a cliff, and out of the cliff flows a stream of water. It trickles down the rock and on to the sand, then across the sand, all the way to the sea. Charlie’s heading towards it. I chase after him, red spade in hand. This is Charlie’s favourite thing to do: build dams in the stream. Dig paths in the sand so the stream flows off in new directions, splitting into smaller streams like fraying threads. Dig pools that fill up, slowly at first, then too quick, then overflow. There is so much you can do with a stream of water across sand.
The other children know this too, and we’re all competing with each other for water. But me and Charlie have each other and we’re the best at it. He’s my reacher and the other half of my team. Mum brings us sandwiches, cheese and cucumber. The bread’s slimy but we eat it anyway.
She says, ‘I heard someone saying they found a starfish in one of the rock pools, do you want to go and see?’ She’s crouching in front of me and her eyes are full and big and blue.
I shake my head. ‘No, thanks.’ Mum goes back to the blanket to read her book. I help Charlie construct a moat around a castle. He says it’s for me and him. We’ll live there forever. It’s us against the world. Another kid runs across it, knocks a turret into the stream.
Charlie throws his spade down. ‘This is rubbish.’ He turns away and heads back to our blanket. I kneel by our castle and reconstruct it, brick by brick, sand by sand. I want it to be perfect again. I want Charlie to tell me I did a good job. I try and call him over but he’s lost interest. I leave our castle to the mercy of the dam-builders.
‘Let’s go to the rock pools,’ says Charlie. I shake my head.
‘What about if we all go together?’ says Mum. I shake my head.
‘Well, if you won’t go, I’ll go.’ Mum gets up, brushes sand off her legs. ‘Come on, Charlie.’ She takes his hand. They get smaller and smaller as they walk away from me.
I sit on the blanket. I play with the sand. I let it run between my fingers, and pile up beneath them. I find shells the size of tiny insects. I find actual insects, and brush them off the blanket when they come for me.
A bit later, Charlie runs back, out of breath. ‘Jessie, you have to come and see.’ He’s caught the sun, Mum would say. I don’t know how you catch the sun, but there’s colour on the high bits of his cheeks.
‘Some men, down by the rock pools, they’ve got some crabs.’
‘I’ve seen crabs, I don’t need to see more.’
‘Just come. Mum says you have to. I’ll hold your hand.’ And because he’s my big brother, and we’re going to live in a castle together, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the rock pools anyway, and I want to hold his hand, I say yes.
We walk down towards the sea. Mum’s waiting for us, and she’s with some people who are looking in buckets. I’m scared but I pretend I’m not, except I squeeze Charlie’s hand a bit tighter.
‘Jessie, look at all these crabs,’ Mum says. She beckons us over.
There’s a man here too, and when he opens his hands there’s a crab in it. It’s smaller than the crabbing crabs but bigger than the rock pool crabs. It’s the colour of evening sky. It’s not as scary as I remembered.
‘Hey, little girlie, do you wanna hold it?’ the man asks. His cheeks are red and his eyes are crinkled at the corners. He’s wearing a shirt and the buttons look like they’re trying to get away from him. I shrink back, behind Mum’s legs. He laughs but it doesn’t make me like him. He crouches down to my level.
‘Aww, are you a bit shy? Crabs can be scary, can’t they?’
I nod, slowly.
‘Well, look at this,’ he says. Using his spare hand he takes the crab by one pincer, and with a noise no bigger than a hiccup, or Charlie trying to click his fingers, he snaps the pincer off. Chucks it away behind him. Then he breaks the other one off too. Charlie gasps next to me.
‘Not so scary anymore, is it?’ The man takes my hand and puts the crab on it.
‘Why’s she crying?’ he asks Mum, sounding confused.
I don’t hear what she says. I cradle the broken crab, coloured like a sunset, to my chest.