In rain, sunshine, mist and high winds we tottered through the fields as fast as Elspeth’s little legs and my dodgy knees allowed. Both of us breathless, we rushed up the hill – more of a hillock really – that Elspeth had named The Big Mountain. The vista from the top encompassed the sweep of the bay beyond: grey or blue or churning green all the way to the horizon.
Elspeth always brought the small teddy that her other grandparents had sent in the post – a palm-sized old-fashioned thing with articulated limbs. It was hard and beige. I was sure she’d shun it in favour of some vibrant plushie, but Elspeth surprised me by taking to Barry, as she named him. She carried him everywhere, often singing repurposed nursery rhymes in a comical gruff voice she claimed was his.
‘Three blind mice – had a naughty fight – bit and scratched and cried – then went back insiiiide!’
When we reached the beach, Elspeth danced Barry’s furry feet around rockpools, stroking his increasingly grubby paws over barnacles and periwinkles.
I pointed out a flurry of black-headed gulls.
‘They’re eagles, Gri-gra,’ Elspeth corrected me, with such certainty that I agreed.
Sometimes I remembered to bring the small purple bucket and garden trowel Elspeth had used as a spade since the original snapped during one of her more vigorous archaeological digs.
In my pocket I carried the crinkled, much-reused binbag to fill with the washed-up plastic that Elspeth called treasure. We’d sort the detritus later into piles for recycling, reusing and reinventing, as Elspeth called it, for our afternoon of arts and crafts. The apple tree in the garden was strung with windchimes Elspeth and I made from plastic bottle tops, gull bones and whelks hollowed by storms.
Few other people came to the north end of the shore. The Man was a surprise, weaving across the dunes that ran to the far end of the village. The first time he ambled onto the pebbly wind-torn beach, I thought he was a cautious tourist wearing his backpack strapped to his front, but then Elspeth cried: ‘Baby!’ and I saw she was right.
The Baby looked a few weeks old – a small smudge with scribbled lashes that opened into an astonished gaze as my granddaughter hooted her welcome. Elspeth hopped about waving Barry’s arms in the air until the Man had no choice but to walk over and say hello.
‘That’s a nice bear,’ he said politely.
Elspeth scowled. ‘Barry’s not a bear today, he’s a giraffe.’
The Man blinked, and I swallowed my amusement at his confusion. ‘Barry is species-fluid,’ I explained. ‘Elspeth believes we should all be whatever we want whenever we choose.’
The Man grinned. ‘And how old are you?’ he asked Elspeth.
She tilted her head on one side, considering. ‘Almost five.’ That was true. ‘But tomorrow I might be nine, or fifteen or maybe just a bit more than zero.’ She beamed at the Man’s infant, baring her teeth like she might try a nibble. Before I thought to intervene, she turned her attention to the Man again. ‘Can you say my name? It’s really hard. I used to say Elspef, but then I learned ‘th’. The hardest word is “thief”, which is why they go to jail. I bet your Baby can’t say “thief” or Elspeth.’
‘No, I should think he can’t,’ the Man agreed and earnt himself a clownish smile. The lipstick she’d insisted on applying before we left the house had smeared almost up to her nose.
‘Poor Baby, don’t worry,’ she reassured the infant. ‘You’ll learn when you’re bigger, like me.’
We met at the shore most days after that and Elspeth showed the Man how to collect treasure, holding up the most garish for him to admire. One time they found a Barbie with only her head and torso intact. Elspeth clucked and bandaged the doll in strips of bladderwrack before tucking her into the bucket with an assortment of hermit crabs.
‘Don’t forget to set those free before we go home,’ I said.
‘I won’t, Gri-gra!’ Elspeth rolled her eyes. ‘My ma doesn’t like crabs in the house,’ she told the Man.
‘Very wise. I should think they prefer the beach anyway,’ the Man said.
It got so that on the few occasions when he didn’t come, I caught myself wondering, even worrying a bit. When he returned, questions bubbled under my tongue, but I held them in, anxious not to infringe on his privacy.
I watched him gather crushed water bottles and food trays from the sand with the Baby clasped to his chest and Elspeth bobbing beside them. Her voice rose in a shrill lilt over the rockpools. They resembled a family.
Back at home, I lifted a wave-smoothed shank of polystyrene from the binbag and ran my hand over it. ‘Where do you think the Baby’s ma is?’ I asked Elspeth, who was felt-tipping green eyes onto a piece of driftwood.
‘Maybe there isn’t one,’ she said, adding red teardrops. She looked at me curiously. ‘Do you want them to come and live here? I don’t mind sharing.’
I jolted, and forced a laugh. ‘You don’t mind sharing? Are you sure about that?’
She stared at me. ‘Silly Gri-gra. I mind sharing jelly beans and ice cream, but I wouldn’t mind sharing Ma. Not if I got Baby and a daddy to play with.’
The next day, the sun’s rays stretched in wide saffron strips over the sand. Elspeth dragged off her shoes at once and darted in and out of the waves squealing that they’d nipped her.
It was almost time to go before the Man appeared. My heart gave a little hurrah of relief in my chest. I turned it into a smile. ‘Everything ok?’ I asked.
He sat down next to me on the sand and loosened the sling that held his son. The Baby lay in his lap, watching everything. Elspeth scampered over, swept off the Baby’s little yellow shoes and placed them beside her own.
‘Look how much more massiver mine are. I must be a giant!’
She sprinted off to find a particular shell to show Baby, and I turned my focus back to the Man, waiting for an answer to my question.
He hesitated, closing his eyes for a second. ‘It’s hard, you know? Feels like we haven’t slept in years, but he’s only ten weeks old. How is that possible?’ His laughter cracked slightly.
‘And how is she?’ I asked. ‘Your… the Baby’s mother.’
He shook his head, catching one plump foot in both hands, squeezing gently and then letting go. The Baby gazed at him and I noticed they had the same eyes, with irises the green-gold of wet kelp. ‘I keep hoping she’s getting better, but she’s so… It’s more than tired. You know?’
I thought of my daughter in the first weeks after Elspeth was born. ‘The body endures a lot. All those hormones and everything changing. Make sure she eats well. Is she having any counselling?’
‘She says she doesn’t want to talk.’
‘That might change. Does she get much fresh air?’
‘Not nearly enough.’
‘Try to encourage her. Maybe she’d like to come here, to see the sea.’
Elspeth hurtled towards us, proffering a mermaid’s purse with curling tendrils at each corner. ‘Is this ravioli? Shall we cook it for tea?’
‘It’s a mermaid’s purse,’ I said, at the same time as the Man told her, ‘It’s a shark egg.’
Elspeth’s lips pinched inwards. ‘You didn’t answer properly. Will we boil it on the cooker?’
‘Let’s leave it here in this rockpool,’ I said. ‘For the sharks and mermaids. I’ll make us an omelette for tea.’
‘With hot chips and spicy sauce?’
‘With hot chips and spicy sauce.’ I waggled my head apologetically towards the Man and let Elspeth pull me away.
My daughter was living on the far side of the country when she got pregnant. I’d invited her to move back with me the day she told me, but she refused. I travelled over to support her through the birth, marvelled at the small, squashed creature who demanded our full attention at once, and expected to return alone. My daughter was the strongest person I knew – nothing had ever fazed her. As a child she once limped a mile with a cracked tibia after falling from a tree. But this was different. She withdrew into herself until I felt I was talking to the wall whenever I asked how she was.
One morning I dragged back her bedroom curtains and the fabric caught the edge of something that flew before I could catch it; a spindle shell that struck the radiator and crumbled.
‘What was it?’ she asked, her voice so low I strained to hear it.
I held out the fragments for her to see. ‘I’m sorry. I’ll bring you another.’
She shook her head, eyes welling. ‘I miss the sea.’
That was when she agreed to let me take her and Elspeth home.
I’d only wanted to help. I never anticipated the joy that having them with me would bring.
The day after I found the courage to speak to the Man about his son’s mother, Elspeth and I had been combing the beach for an hour when she swooped down on a flash of sunflower yellow. ‘Baby’s shoe!’ she exclaimed. ‘Shall we hang it with the windchimes in our tree?’
I took it from her, weighing the lightness in my palm. ‘Better not. They’ll need it back, won’t they?’
Elsbeth raised both eyebrows – a feat she’d recently mastered and used whenever she felt an exclamation mark was needed. ‘We can take it all the way to their house!’
‘We don’t know where that is.’
I stared at her. ‘How?’
‘They live by the post box in the village.’ She bounced onto her toes, impatient. ‘I saw Baby and the Man going all the way inside when Ma took me to send Grandma and Grandpop’s thank you card. For Barry.’
We carried the shoe across the fields to the garden where windchimes rattled in the apple tree. I stood back. ‘Which one can you spare?’ I asked Elsbeth.
She pointed to one with a frill of translucent mother-of-pearl fragments that diffused the falling light. ‘That one’s prettiest.’
I nodded and ran my fingers through her salty hair, my eyes unexpectedly damp.
‘Take it to them, Gri-gra,’ Elspeth said, her eyes brimming with solemnity. ‘Tell them it’s because we love them.’
I promised I would and ushered her inside to her Ma and bath-time, to scrub what she called ‘sea soot’ from her hair.
Setting off along the lane with the windchime in one hand and the yellow shoe in the other, I felt myself pushing against a wind that buffeted in cold and chill. It took more effort than seemed reasonable and I paused twice on my way. What had once been a twenty-minute walk took me almost an hour. Getting old, I sneered to myself, then shrugged. Nothing wrong with age, I’d have told Elspeth, you just need to choose more carefully how to spend your energy.
At last the red beacon of the pillar box came into view. Opposite it stood a small slate-roofed house with a door painted the green gold of wet kelp.
As I halted to catch my breath once more, the door opened and the Man stepped onto the pavement. Baby was strapped to his chest. My hand shot up, still holding the shoe. Before I shouted, he turned back towards the house. It looked like he was speaking to someone.
My hand dropped and I watched the woman who wavered into the daylight, hesitant as though it had been a long time. She raised her face to the sky. I was too far away to see her expression, but I remembered my daughter emerging like this, like a creature rediscovering the world.
The Man took her arm and kissed her forehead, and then they wandered away from me, towards the sand dunes and the beach.
When they were out of sight, I strolled over to the house where an empty hanging basket dangled. I tied the windchime to it with the yellow shoe swaying beneath – a shot of sunshine they couldn’t miss.
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