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A Day at the Beach

by Cathal Brown


    It was nice by the sea. Pops used to bring us there a lot in summer-time. All afternoon, we would sit, swim, build sandcastles, and sometimes buy cones and perri-winkles. The four of us would go: Minnie, Pops, Johnny and I. Minnie was our nanny and housekeeper. We needed her because, two years before, our Mammy had gone to heaven. Johnny and I didn’t like Minnie one bit, nor she us.
   
One Sunday afternoon we spent on the beach is engraved on my memory. I was seven and Johnny four. The beach was chockfull that day, and the air was full of the smell of sun-tan lotion, and the sounds of crying babies, waves and radios tuned to the football commentary. Johnny and I wanted to go swimming, and Minnie said we could, provided we didn’t go in past our waists and were careful. I was to look after Johnny. So we ran down the beach together - the tide was well out - and splashed into the shallow water.
   
Well, there was no persuading Johnny to come into deeper water, and I eventually left him in the shallows while I went swimming. I liked swimming and was good at it for a seven-year-old. I especially liked ducking underwater and exploring the dark, sandy bed for a few seconds, before shooting up into the light for air. Another thing I liked doing was lying back and kicking my long legs as hard as I could, splashing foam all over the place. I also practised my breaststroke, but only because I thought of my swimming-teacher, a strict woman who would surely disapprove if I did not take advantage of my visit to the sea to practise my swimming.
   
When I came back to the shore, Johnny had moved from where I had left him. I stood and roared out his name as loud as I could, but there was no sign of him.
   
When I ran back to Minnie and Pops, there he was, calmly digging a hole in the sand beside them.
   
“Well, miss,” said Minnie, “I thought I told you to take care of your brother.”
   
“But he wouldn’t come into the water!” I whinged automatically.
   
“I left him sitting in the shallow water and told him not to move.” This was a lie.
    “It’s his fault.”
    “Well, you should have been keeping an eye on him and not let him go wandering off. Imagine if he didn’t come back to us? You’d be held responsible. In future now, do as you’re told.”
    I was red in the face, but stayed silent. Minnie wouldn’t brook any more backchat out of me, I knew. I soon grew tired of sulking and began to build sandcastles near Johnny. I made a point of ignoring him, however, and whenever he encroached on my territory by accidently flinging sand near me or by moving his leg into my area, I gave him a vicious pinch. Strangely, he didn’t complain about me to Minnie or Pops. He was too absorbed in digging his holes.
    After a while, Minnie said something to Pops and he stopped reading his paper long enough to give her a pound note out of his pocket.
    “Now, Eileen,” she said in the peremptory tone I resented.
   
“Your father is going to buy us cones. I want you to go and get them at the shop. Ask for four small white ones – not pink, now. Pink are bad for you. And make sure you bring back the change.”
    “Johnny piped up: “I want to go too-oo.”
    “No,” I told him. “You’re too small.”
    He was about to start crying when Minnie said:
    “Don’t be such a mean thing, Eileen. Wouldn’t you show some kindness to your brother. Of course, he can go. He can help you carry back the cones. Otherwise you’ll drop them or have them dripping all over the place.”
    Holding Johnny’s hand in a tight squeeze designed to hurt him, I began to walk to the shop. I walked deliberately quickly to make it hard for him to keep up, and at one point walked him straight into a man and then told him off for being an awkward little fool. But once I had exacted my revenge, my grip relaxed, and I began to hum my favourite tune, ‘All kinds of Everything.’ For we were going to the shop to buy cones. Johnny caught my mood, and soon we were singing our own song together – ‘Boo-pa doo-pa ooglie-bogglie la-la-la’ - and giggling. It seemed funny to be singing it in front of all these strangers. It had never seemed this funny in the privacy of our home.
    To get to the shop, we had to cross the pedestrian crossing. We had to wait a while for a car to come. Then, we marched across the black-and-white lines at a snail’s pace, and thrilled to the power of making it stop. Someday, I wanted to stand still in the middle of those lines and stop all the cars for hours. Or walk back and forth, back and forth, all day, not giving them a chance to cross. For today, I was content to walk across slowly.
    There was a big queue at the ice-cream machine. The man serving at it looked hot. I thought of asking him could I have his job for a half-an-hour. I would have loved to pull the handle down and let the delicious long sausage of ice-cream flow. And if I did it, the ice-cream would go right down to the bottom of the cone. That way, you could bite off the bottom of it and suck the ice-cream into your mouth. That was how ice-cream should be eaten.
    Eventually, the man noticed me and asked: “How many?”
    “Four,” I said.
    “Large or small?”
    “Small.”
    “Pink or white?”
    I paused and thought for a moment. “Two pink and two white.”
    Johnny tugged my sleeve urgently.
   
“But Minnie said............”
    “Shut up.”
    Louder, he said: “Minnie said to get white ones, Eileen.”
    His voice was scared, and this made me nervous.
    “Just shut up, you. You want pink, don’t you?”
    The man was watching us impatiently.
   
“Look, make up your mind. Do you want pink or white?”
    “Two pink and two white,” I said with finality.
    Triumphantly, I marched out of the shop. Johnny and I each held a pink in one fist and a white in the other.
    “The pink is much nicer than the white,” I told him.
   
His agreed with me, but his mouth was buried too deeply in his ice-cream to reply.
    When we came back to the wall, at the other side of which Minnie and Pops were sitting, half our ice-cream was still left. All my good humour deserted me at the prospect of facing Minnie with clear evidence of having disobeyed her orders.
    “Quick, finish your cone,” I told Johnny, licking mine furiously.
    “But look at Pops’ one,” he wailed, and I noticed for the first time that both of the white ice-creams were melting fast and dripping down our hands.
    I had to work quickly. I repaired the damage by licking away the white ice-cream that had dripped onto the cone, told Johnny to do the same, and threw my own into a bin. Johnny refused to give up his, however, (‘You shouldn’t have bought pink ones in the first place!’) but I snatched it from his grasp, slapped him and told him not to cry or I would murder him. Then we went around the wall to face Pops and Minnie.
    As I approached them, sitting some hundred yards away, I was faced with an extraordinary sight. Their deck-chairs which had been apart, were pushed together, and they were doing something very peculiar with their arms and with their heads. I couldn’t quite figure it out. I decided something was wrong with Minnie, and Pops, who was a doctor, was trying to cure her. I rushed forward and, as I did so, they broke up, Pops picked up his newspaper and Minnie was suddenly absorbed by the “Reader’s Digest” on her lap.
    I ran to them. “What’s wrong, Minnie?”
    “Nothing, nothing. Thank you for the ice-cream.”
    Johnny, who had been walking behind me, gave Pops his cone and he, too, thanked him. It was strange for them to be so polite.
    Even more strangely, Minnie said nothing about the condition of her ice-cream which, despite my best efforts, looked pretty miserable. But the crowning event in a series of extraordinary ones was when Minnie called Johnny to her and wiped the ice-cream off his face, hands and tee-shirt, without saying a word about it’s being pink.
    Actually, she was returning to normal, because she said to him:
    “How many times have I told you to keep yourself clean? At your age, slobbering ice-cream all over yourself.”
    But I just couldn’t understand why she didn’t notice the colour. Minnie always noticed things like that. She looked funny, too: kind of red in the face. The whole thing gave me a very peculiar feeling.
    They sent us away, then, to play, even though we didn’t want to. When we came back, Pops said it was time to go home, although it was only four o’clock.
    “But why do we have to go?” I whinged.
    “Because I said so,” said Pops.
    “And not another word out of you,” added Minnie, grimfaced.
    Late that night, as we lay in bed feeling tired and comfortable after our day at the beach, she came into our room to tuck us in.
    “I have something to tell you,” she said.
    I noticed she was wearing lipstick, something I had never seen her do. And her hair was all funny.
   
“Your father and I have become engaged.”
    When we said nothing, she looked disappointed, and was about to leave the room when she turned back and asked:
    “Do you know what that means?” We shook our heads.
   
“It means we’re going to get married.”
    “But you can’t do that,” I protested after thinking about this for a moment.
    “He’s married already!”
    “I know he is,” she said with false kindness, for I could see she was struggling to control herself.
   
“But he can marry a second time if he wants to. Your Mammy wouldn’t mind.”
    “But I don’t want you to marry Pops,” I said, and tried to keep the tears back.
    But my words were as nothing compared with what was to come, for Johnny burst into the most heart-wrenching bawl of anguish that I have ever heard. He continued to bawl until my father came thumping up the stairs.
    “What’s going on here?” he demanded of no one in particular. I noticed that Minnie had shrunk back against the wall.
    “Johnny, what’s wrong?”
    “I .. you .. Minnie told us ..” was all he could manage before he started bawling again.
    “Shh, shh. Minnie told you we’re getting married, is that it? Now what’s wrong with that? Wouldn’t you like to have Minnie for a Mammy?”
   
His bawling changed gear and became even louder. Pops turned to me in bewilderment.
    “Eileen, what’s wrong? Do you not like us getting married?”
    In reply, I pouted my lips and turned to kneel with my back to him, putting a protective arm around Johnny. He was wailing still, although a little more quietly.
    My father gave up and he and Minnie left the room. I don’t know what happened after that except that soon afterwards, to our great delight, Minnie left us and was replaced by big red-cheeked Mary from Cork. My father never remarried. Nor, incidentally, did he ever again take us to the beach for the day.

 

________

Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’ (1991), pages 55-58.



Cathal Brown
 

Dances with Wolves in Southall