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by Cath Allwood

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The girl knelt to pick up the periwinkle shell, her long, tangled brown hair falling forward, into the wet sand. She flicked it back with a habitual gesture and got down onto both knees to peer into the rock pool. Tiny hermit crabs scuttled sideways as her shadow fell across their sky. She captured one between delicate fingertips and studied it with narrowed brown eyes, brows drawn together in concentration.

‘Hannah! Hannah!’ It was her mother’s voice. The girl replaced the creature in its home and, folding her arms, bent lower over the pool. Her favourites were there and she counted them: sea urchins, a mermaid’s purse, a few prawns and three starfish. Hannah pulled a notebook from the back pocket of her shorts and wrote in it with a stub of pencil. She noted the species with date and time. She looked up and scanned the skies. Breezy with small cumulus clouds scudding around.

‘I brought a bit of lunch, pet.’ Her mother stepped confidently, barefoot, over the pebbly beach.

Hannah looked up. ‘Thanks, Mam.’ She got up and went to sit next to her mother on a warm, grey rock. Her mother had brought a basket with a red gingham-wrapped parcel and water in a screw-topped bottle. The girl took the parcel from the basket and unwrapped the gingham carefully on her knees.

‘Cheese and marmite, love.’ They gazed out to sea side by side, eating their lunch. Hannah showed her mother the additions to the notebook and the sketch she’d done that morning of a cushion star. Mam shared her thoughts on her latest poem and listened silently to her daughter’s response. Hannah always had something useful to say; she was clever and had a sharp, logical mind.

Afterwards, her mother got up to go back to the inn. Hannah looked at her enquiringly and Mam shook her head. ‘You stay here, pet. Your daddy and I can manage till dinner.’ She strode away and was soon out of sight.

Hannah resumed her exploration of the shoreline. Some interesting birds today. She noted them all down and checked for more distant species through her precious binoculars that her parents had given her on her tenth birthday. Later, she watched the seals swimming in the channel as the tide rose.

She loved the long summer vacation. Her parents, busy at the Ship and Dolphin, left her to her own devices. She helped out at the inn, of course, waitressing and bed-making if they were short but her heart was always by the sea. She’d overheard her parents discussing her one evening after dinner in the kitchen.

‘Our girl’s that clever, Aggie. University, I reckon.’ Her father’s voice had been full of pride. He was a quiet man and undemonstrative and she’d seldom heard him so fulsome. ‘We’ll miss her but we mustn’t stand in her way.’

‘Aye, you’re not wrong, Aidan. She’ll go far. Cleverer than Andrew, I reckon.’ Hannah’s brother, five years older than her, was already doing his MBA at Manchester Business School. The gap in age had meant they’d never been especially close. Andrew had looked out for her casually before he’d left home but he’d always been determined to leave the island and make money. Her parents had fallen silent as she entered the kitchen with a tray of dirty dishes from the dining room and were apparently occupied with dishing up the puddings.

After that, she’d focussed on her studies and had ignored the gibes about being a swot and a goody two-shoes from less academic classmates. She wasn’t interested in the boys in her class anyway, though it was acknowledged that she could’ve had her pick if she could be bothered.

Her appetite for knowledge was voracious and she soaked it up like a sponge. Her teachers encouraged her to aim for university and she already knew she wanted a career as a marine biologist or oceanographer.

Then, when she was sixteen, it happened. She was beachcombing one balmy evening in early September and she’d seen him. He must’ve just been swimming as he was standing naked on the shore looking out to sea. Salt water streamed down his body from his long black hair. His skin was brown, his body lean and lithe. She’d never seen anyone so beautiful. She stood gazing until he turned towards her and held out his hand. She went as if in a trance. She didn’t, couldn’t resist.

She awoke when it was dark, shivering and alone. She gathered her scattered clothes and stumbled home to the inn. It was after midnight and her parents were asleep. Letting herself in, she crept up to her room in the attic, avoiding the stairs that growled. She huddled under her eiderdown and didn’t sleep a wink.


‘Have you not taken that tea through for number five yet, Hannah?’ Next morning, her mother was puzzled by her vagueness. ‘Come on, pet. Wakey, wakey. Folks are waiting for their breakfast.’

‘Sorry, Mam.’ She picked up the tray and went into the dining room. She got through breakfast somehow and then escaped down to the shore. It was hot in the mid-morning sun and she curled up among the rocks and fell asleep. She woke when it was well past noon, her hair full of sand. She stripped off to the swimsuit under her shorts and tee-shirt and plunged into the sea. As always, she felt the saltwater restoring and cleansing her. She wondered if she would see him again. He wasn’t local; she knew everyone on the island.

That evening, they were busy at the inn and she couldn’t get away; then she was back at school doing ‘A’ levels. She tried to forget him but the boys at school seemed stupider and more insipid that ever. When I go to university, she thought…

October came and she realised that something was wrong. Much as she disliked periods, the alternative wasn’t welcome either. She tried to tell herself that she was just late but she’d always been regular as clockwork and she wasn’t a fool. She knew about men and sex; her mam and daddy had explained everything openly and sensibly. She knew what was happening. Her dreams of university and research – were they all at an end? She ought to tell her mam but couldn’t bring herself to admit how foolish she’d been.

She let it slide until November and then, one Saturday morning when they’d made breakfast for the few guests, she’d faced her mother. ‘Mam, come for a walk with me.’ The two women went out into the rainy morning and strolled down past the castle. The island was deserted.

When they reached Coves Haven, Hannah stopped and they sat together. She cleared her throat. ‘I’ve been right daft, Mam.’ She folded her arms across her stomach.

‘Haven’t we all at times, pet?’ Her mother put her arm round Hannah’s shoulders. ‘I was wondering when you’d tell me.’

‘How did you guess?’

‘Well, you’re not usually prone to being sick, are you? And you look… I dunno, a bit different, love. How many months gone are you?’

‘A couple. It was September.’ Hannah felt tears filling her eyes and buried her face in her mother’s shoulder.

‘It’s all right, pet. Don’t you fret.’

‘You’re not angry with me?’ Hannah felt like a small child again.

‘These things happen, sweetheart.’ They sat together for a long time until Hannah felt better. Her mother became business-like. ‘Have you thought what you’d like to do? Does the father know?’

Hannah explained what had happened. ‘Oh, Mam, he was so beautiful. Not like anyone I’ve ever seen before.’ She sighed. ‘I’ve not seen him since. He’s never come back.’

Mam sighed too. ‘So he won’t be taking an interest. Never mind, pet. We’ll work it out together. Come on, now. It’s getting cold.’

Her mother took control and made doctor’s appointments and sorted everything out. Hannah decided to keep the baby which was due at the end of May. Her mother seemed to be in her element and started making baby clothes. Her daddy was kind and loving and it seemed to bring the family closer together. Even her brother, Andrew, took an interest after his initial angry offer to ‘horse-whip the culprit’, to which Hannah told him not to be so daft.  As Mam said, she wasn’t the first teenager to fall pregnant and an inn was the perfect place to raise a baby. Hannah must take her ‘A’ levels and go to university. She and Aidan would look after the child during term time and Hannah mustn’t worry.

The baby was born at the beginning of June. Hannah had a surprisingly easy time. It was a boy and she called him Jack. She put him in a sling on her front and took him with her onto the beach for days on end. He was happy and contented and seemed to like being by the sea. Hannah wondered about his father. Why had he never appeared again? Who was he?

One August day, Hannah undressed and, carrying the baby in her arms, stepped into the shallow water in the bay. Jack was quiet and untroubled. She went in up to her waist and still he didn’t seem worried; she went in deeper and the water lapped the baby’s toes. He gurgled with pleasure and waved his hands around.

‘I wonder… Can you swim, baby?’ She let him down into the water and he started moving his arms and legs. ‘Ooh, Jack. You’re like a little frog.’ He struck out surprisingly strongly and, before she knew what was happening, had wriggled out of her arms and disappeared into the deeper water. Panic-stricken, she ducked under the surface, searching desperately for him. She swam around, distraught and sobbing. Where was he?

Long minutes passed. She’d drowned her baby. She should never have taken him in the sea. She was stupid and wicked. ‘Jack! Jack!’ It was useless to call his name; he was in a watery grave. Her little baby… gone. She dived repeatedly until she was exhausted. She crawled back onto the beach and lay there, weeping until she was drained of emotion.

She sat up and saw a little baby rolling in the surf nearby. She threw herself towards him and picked him up, cuddling him to her body, crying and crying. Jack looked up at her with his big, dark eyes and gurgled, opening and closing his hands like tiny sea anemones. He nuzzled at her breast, evidently hungry after his swim.

‘Jack. Oh, my Jack. You gave your mammy a right scare, you naughty little thing.’ She kissed his head and stroked his limbs. He was warm and salty and clearly none the worse for his adventure. He fed serenely and she looked down at her baby in wonder. ‘Who are you, Jack?’

As she rocked her baby, she heard the seals singing in the deep channel.

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