As I let the bath water cool around me last night, I remembered being 10 or 11, paddling in the chilly English sea. Forty-five years have passed, yet I can still recall the sand sinking beneath my toes, and the seaweed slithering against my pale legs. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore; it had been fun briefly, in the novelty of visiting the beach for the first time, but I was cold, and wanted to get out.
I was only knee-deep in water, and Mum had taken my younger brother back to the warm dry sand, telling me to follow when ready.
But I was trapped! Writhing and heaving between me and my family was a two metre-thick band of brown kelp, some strands as thick as my skinny legs, freezing me in fear.
What lurked beneath?
My vivid yet anxious imagination created snakes, grabbing hands, various sea monsters, and perhaps a pirate’s dead body or two for good measure.
I couldn’t even wave to Mum, who was fussing with my brother and had her back to me.
I looked up and down the water’s edge for a gap in the terrible mass, but it pulsed with the gentle waves as far as I could see, as though it were breathing.
Around me, children and their parents splashed out beyond the seaweed, laughing and playing in the sun diamonds they made. I just hugged myself, staring in misery at the barrier before me, absolutely unable to beat my fear.
Hours went by. Or was it minutes? It seemed like half the day, with me trapped so near yet so far from where I wanted to be: happy on the sand, cajoling for ice-cream.
I could see Mum and my brother sitting on our striped towels– he was pushing sand around with his annoying dumper truck, and she was reading as usual, glancing up every now and again to check I was OK with a cheery wave.
I sent desperate telepathic messages:
“I am NOT having a good time. I am NOT OK. Please rescue me at once. I am freezing, and in danger of death by seaweed misadventure.”
I hugged myself tighter, and looked again for a gap in the morass of salty eels.
Was it thinner over there? Could I see glimpses of sand between the grasping hands and thick snakes?
Over and over I tried to make myself walk through the seaweed, but I just couldn’t move. I could see Mum starting to pack up, waving at me to come in.
“My feet have sunk too deep to move. I am desperate to be saved. Please come and pick me up.”
I could see Mum frowning, puzzled at my reluctance, and I just wanted her hug so much. I burst into tears, took a deep breath, and hopped/ran/scrambled my way through the dreaded kelp, almost like a cartoon character who spins her legs in one spot before actually moving forward.
It felt like the scariest and bravest thing I’d ever done, by myself, and Mum laughed in a sad way when I gasped out my tale of woe. She hugged me tight when she understood I hadn’t been enjoying the paddling around as she had thought, and I relaxed against her salty warm body.
We joked about it later, eating vanilla ice cream from a waffle cone, stuffed with a chocolate flake, and somehow I became proud of my determination to beat the threatening seaweed.
As I lay in the bath tonight, almost three months since Mum died of dementia aged 85, I realized that no one else knows that story, or really cares. I could tell my son, but he’s 21- full of life and its boundless, confident energy- he wouldn’t understand. He’s a surfer- the ocean and its weedy creatures are his friends.
I am the sole Keeper of that Story now, and so, SO many more…
I miss you Mum.
In gratitude for days by the beach, and salty hugs, G xO