Years ago, I was walking along a beach in the Lake District and spotted two little boys having a great whale of a time splashing around on the shoreline. I think it’s the only time a particular sight inspired me to write a short story. I wrote it for my daughter whose birthday it is today. And without being presumptuous, I share it with you now as an early festive gift. present.
Merry Christmas and happy reading.
Not drowning but waving
Stunned by the news story on the radio Bert clung to the bathroom sink for support. Surely they’d made a mistake? With trembling fingers he turned the dial, raised the volume, anxious to catch the headline again at the end of the bulletin. After taking a deep breath or two, he continued shaving, almost convinced he’d misheard. The newsreader’s voice was louder this time, the message clear.
…police want to trace an elderly man spotted yesterday near the scene of a tragedy at Silecroft beach…
Bert closed his eyes, barely aware of the falling razor, the clatter as it struck already cracked tiles. Casting his mind back, he was sure the beach had been empty, deserted but for the two youngsters playing at the edge of the ocean. The stinging rain and leaden skies had deterred less hardy holidaymakers; Bert had passed the caravan park, seen families cooped up, probably squabbling over board games as they waited for a break in the summer storm. But clearly someone else had been there, someone else had been watching…
It was the beauty of the little blond boy that had caught Bert’s attention, brought a welcome diversion to another solitary walk. His heavy boots had made deep impressions in the wet sand, but he couldn’t take his gaze from the little boy whose blond hair bobbed golden on a canvas of greys. The daft little beggar must have gone in the freezing water without a second thought. Clothes were strewn around anyhow and there was no sign of anything as sensible as a towel. But the boy was screaming in delight, kicking and splashing, revelling in his minor rebellion. The youngster’s unbridled excitement was infectious; Bert’s smile, involuntary.
He’d never seen a child so full of life. Radiant, that was the word. The lad couldn’t keep still, and every time he ventured a little further into the waves, his delight – and maybe a touch of defiance – rose.
Bert was about to turn away when the boy gave a huge grin. He saw the child’s eyes then, a breath-taking sky blue. There was a spark of mischief as well, an invitation to join or at least condone the forbidden fun. Bert smile back uncertainly. The boy waved again, then raced into the ocean once more, his feet kicking spray high into the air. He appeared younger than Bert had first thought. Nine? Ten? It seemed no age to be out alone. Bert scanned the beach for signs of the child’s parents. He’d been so entranced, only now did he fully register the youngster’s friend, an older lad with long dark hair whose frame looked painfully thin even through a couple of layers of clothes. The older boy stood well back from the water’s edge, veering it seemed between caution and curiosity. Bert sensed a longing to join in but, perhaps like Bert, he was afraid of the water. The little blond boy looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Wading in further and further, he turned every now and then to cajole and coax his reluctant pal.
Bert glanced at his watch: nearly tea time. His face lit up, he’d certainly have something to tell Enid when he arrived home. The little fellow’s high jinks would make his wife chuckle, it was just the sort of story she liked. Then Bert remembered. His smile vanished. Enid wouldn’t be there, wouldn’t be there ever again. He’d always thought he would go first. Even now there were times he had to fight the urge to join her. They’d been so close – not having kiddies of their own.
The little boy’s excited screams broke Bert’s dark thoughts. There was delight and devilry in the high-pitched squealing as he kicked and splashed oblivious to the cold, thrilled by his daring. He was in no danger. Bert knew this stretch of the Cumbrian coast better than the back of his hand. There was no steep shelving to trip the unwary, no powerful tides to drag the boy out to sea. As long as the child didn’t go out of his depth, he’d come to no harm. The thought comforted Bert and allayed to some extent the old man’s vague unease at leaving the youngsters alone. He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and continued trudging along the beach. As he reached the coastal footpath, he turned back for a final glimpse. The little blond boy was waving.
Still gripping the sink Bert opened his eyes, though the scene still played in his head. He must go to the police, help in any way he could. But what could he say? He’d seen a child playing in the sea and now the child was dead, drowned. He felt a dreadful sense of guilt. But what could he have done? Bert couldn’t swim to save his own life let alone anyone else’s. And anyway, he argued, the boy had been in no danger. When he’d left, the little lad had been having the time of his life. Bert peered at his reflection through the mist in the mirror. There was a shiny red bead of blood above his top lip.
* * *
‘There were two boys in the sea, Mr Glover. Is that what you’re trying to say?’ The inspector was tall, powerfully built, with a thin dark moustache. He reminded Bert of that actor in Gone with the Wind. Bert tried recalling the name but – like much else – it had gone. He smoothed a hand over thin silver strands of hair then scratched the back of his neck. He’d been through his account several times but Inspector Read made him feel like a doddery old fool.
‘No.’ Bert tried to stay calm. ‘Not in the water. Like I said, the older boy as hanging back, just watching. Never ventured in at all.’
‘I don’t mean to be rude, Mr Glover, but do you normally wear glasses? See, you’re the only witness who’s mentioned two boys.’
The inspector tipped his chair back against the interview room wall. ‘So are you quite sure about it?’
The hard seat was uncomfortable but not as unsettling as the inspector’s stare. Bert folded his hands in his lap. ‘Perfectly. Thank you.’
‘See there’s another thing, Mr Glover. You said there was no one else around yesterday, but we’ve taken statements from a young couple who saw you watching the boy. Fact is they thought you were his granddad. Standing so close, smiling, waving, staring and all that. Otherwise they might have hung around, made sure he came to no harm.’
‘The boy wasn’t in danger.’
Bert jumped when the inspector’s chair hit the tiles. ‘He drowned, Mr Glover.’
‘Not when I was there.’ Bert cleared his throat but there was still a catch in his voice. ‘He was just a little boy having fun.’ He still couldn’t believe the youngster was dead – all that vitality snuffed out. ‘What about the dark-haired lad?’ Bert asked. ‘Why hasn’t he come forward? He was a good few years older. I thought they were together, that he was looking out for the little ’un. I assumed they were mates but I suppose they could’ve been brothers’
The inspector picked a piece of loose skin from the side of his thumb. ‘The dead boy was an only child. The family’s holidaying at the caravan park. Only been there three days. The boy slipped out on his own.’
Bert wiped his nose surreptitiously with the back of his hand; there was a cold wetness on his cheeks. He wanted to go home; he wanted a hug, a comforting word from Enid.
Suddenly alert, the inspector leaned across the desk; a sharp edge to his voice. ‘Tell me again about the boy in the water.’
Bert dashed the tears away, tried to meet the younger man’s gaze. ‘He was very blond. It’s what made me think the other lad was just a friend – him being so dark, see.’
Eyes narrowed, the inspector took a photograph from a file on the desk. ‘This is the boy who drowned. James Tyler. Is this who you saw in the water?’
Even before he turned the print round, Bert recognised the face. It was a picture of the dark-haired lad who’d kept well back from the waves.
* * *
That evening the local newspaper dropped through Bert’s letter box at the usual time. He shuffled down the hall and stooped to pick it up. He’d not been feeling well since arriving home from the police station. Inspector Read hadn’t accused him of anything but it didn’t stop the guilt and grief. Bert blamed himself – if only he could go back, have the time over again. He recognised the signs of another depression but couldn’t snap out of it. He was lonely. He missed Enid so much. Retirement wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and he wasn’t one for the pub with what few friends hadn’t moved on or passed away. He ought to get out more, take up a hobby or something. He brewed a pot of tea, settled himself in his favourite wing-back armchair and picked up the newspaper. The place was a ghost town in the winter but now at the height of the season there’d be lots going on. Maybe there’d be details of a club he could join or . . .
Bert struggled to hold the pages still. There was a follow-up story on the boy’s drowning. There’d been a similar incident thirty years ago on the same stretch of beach. It had been big news and the reporter had retrieved the original article from the archives.
The boy back then had been younger than James Tyler. Details were sketchy but he was described as a solitary boy who loved the sea. The police thought he’d sneaked out of his home one night during a storm. His clothes were found strewn across the sand but the body had never been recovered. Bert couldn’t tear his gaze from the child’s photograph. It was dusk when he eventually laid down the paper. He needed air, exercise. The storm had passed, he reached for his coat.
He’d stared at the picture so long the image might have been fixed on his retina. He saw it when his eyes were closed – saw it still when they were open. Even here, on the beach, in the dark, the image shimmered in front of Bert. A little boy with blond hair, a hint of devilry in his laughing sky blue eyes and a hand held frozen in the air.