Saturday, May 13, 2006


Another time. Another day. Wandering in the grounds of my house. The beach, that year, had managed to connive its way a good seven miles inland and right up to my front door. None of my neighbours had this problem, needless to say.

But this was all on the broad shoulders of a good summer, so having a beach in the garden was no bad thing. I'd put out a deck chair in the hollow between dunes of a morning and, packet of sandwiches under my arm, settle down to make a day of it. I might wander back (all of eighteen steps!) to brew some tea, but apart from that I'd be out of the house all day. And the telephone, should it ring, was readily audible through the open kitchen door. Lots of important calls in those days.

One day- this particular day- my nose was buried in Gordian Applebath's Trifles of the Mighty when I looked up suddenly at the sound of a splash. Now, the lake, nomadic as its inclination is, can usually be found somewhere stage right (if you like) of the front door. This splash had definitely come from just over the dunes directly in front of me.

Standing up to gain a better view, my nose was pleasantly assailed by the salt smell of the sea. No mystery there, obviously. I was on a beach. But beyond my few dunes, as I could clearly see now, there was nothing more than my garden, my trees and my five or six paths winding in and out of same to their hearts' content. So I sat down again.

No sooner had I done so than I heard another splash. And another. The sound: bare feet running along the water's edge; tinkling splashes interspersed with the slap of sole on flat wet sand. But..

...What water's edge?

I almost dropped the book in my haste to get to my feet again. I needn't have bothered. As before, my cluster of dunes yielded onto the green familiarity of my garden in its summer dress. There was no water to be seen, nor any to be heard. I was puzzled but I am, after all, a man of science. I sat down again.

'Lovely day. Even for the time of year.'

A woman's voice. I looked around. I looked behind my deckchair. There was no sign of anyone.

'Interesting book?'

I looked again and there she was, drying herself with a large towel.

'Not going in for a dip yourself?'

I told her I was expecting an important telephone call. She nodded three times and made a little face, then threw her towel down not a yard from my chair and sat on it.

God forgive me, but I returned my attention to my book, though I watched her from the corner of my left eye.

'They say it's going to be as nice as this for at least the next fortnight', she said, shielding her eyes with her arm as she looked up into the bright, electric blue sky. 'No rockets today. Pity.'

I offered that most of the launches took place at night. To say any more would have risked the security of Penda's Fen and the important work carried out there.

She gave her head a shake to settle her wet hair. She had a trio of freckles on her right shoulder blade. At length, I took my life in my hands and asked her if she would like a cup of tea.

She turned and faced me. Her eyes were... What colour were they? 'Lovely!' she said. And then, when I was halfway to the kitchen door, 'Any cake?'

I always had cake, in those days. She clapped when she saw the plate and gave a little cheer once everything was ready and the tea was being poured. We chatted. She had been a service pilot. I hadn't even noticed the scars on her legs until she pointed them out to me. 'Still', she said. 'Sunshine is good for them.' She was lucky, she explained, that her Wellington had gone down over the sea. The salt water had prevented the burns taking too deep a hold. So, as it turned out, the three days and nights she spent clinging to a bit of floating wreckage was probably the best thing that could have happened, in the circumstances.

She liked her cake. She had two and a half slices. She drank two cups of tea to my one. She said that she wished we had a little gramophone out there, on the dunes. For music. But in the absence of one, she sang.

The telephone rang and I made my way towards the kitchen, shouting over my shoulder that I wouldn't be more than a moment. The call was of no consequence; a simple matter regarding some upcoming tests that it nonetheless took a good ten minutes to extricate myself from. I could hear her splashing in the water outside, and that made me smile. But when I went out again there was no sign of her. I walked right across the beach into the garden and searched among the trees. All to no avail. And when- finally- I turned back towards the house, I saw that the dunes were gone too.


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