Friday 12 June 2009

A Strange Occurrence

It is a summer’s day on Brighton beach. One of those days that Brighton seems to do so well. A slightly hazy sun, warm pebbles, high tide and a sleek, flat sea which still manages to send in the occasional swell to suck at the steeply shelving pebbles.

A few yards away to one side of where I am sitting a young family is encamped. Father, mother and a toddler. With the arrogance of my teenage years I mentally classify them  as day-trippers. The mother, wearing a sun dress, has been paddling with her daughter and is now sitting on a rug, legs outstretched to the sun. The father looks much less comfortable even though he is seated in a low beach chair. He has removed his suit jacket, tie & collar, rolled up his shirt sleeves, pushed his braces off his shoulders but kept on his highly-polished black shoes. He still looks too hot. Their child plays a few yards away at the waters edge with a small bucket.

All seems right with the world. I sink back on my elbows and squint into the shimmering distance. Suddenly there is a shriek and from the corner of my eye I see the mother's arms fling out and the father jump to his feet. I look down the beach and see nothing but the retreating, sucking surf. The toddler has disappeared. The father is crashing down the pebbles, braces flying, and I simultaneously notice the child floating, face down, a yard or two from the beach making feeble movements with her arms.
                                      * * *
This was over 60 years ago but what happened next cast a lasting impression in my mind. First let me relieve you - the child did not drown. Indeed the father did not even get his shoes and socks wet. He came to a pebble-ploughing halt at the water's edge and shouted and gesticulated to a bather who was standing waist-deep nearby. The bather with two or three strides reached the child, lifted her easily out of the water and conveyed her to her father's arms.

After a few tears, a towelling and dry clothes the child seemed little worse for her experience. Between the parents very few words were spoken and those that were, too quiet to distinguish, but my side-long glimpses of their body-language suggested that relations were very strained. How could it have been otherwise? What demon can have possessed his priorities in those critical seconds such that he put his new shoes and personal comfort before the life-threatening need of his child; or any child?

Soon afterwards the mother gathered up her daughter and pushchair and set off alone up the beach. He hurriedly collected up the remaining possessions and followed. To this day I can see their retreating backs. I know nothing more about them and never will. A small incident and the world kept turning but a day by the seaside had been ruined. . . . Did their life as a family survive?

First published in Issue 11 of 'Regency' magazine June 2009.

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