We met digging in the sand. At first my brother and I kept our distance, wary and territorial, afraid that these other children would invade the hole we had dug, knock down our sandcastle, or worse, build a better one. Then a ball strayed and a cautious exchange took place. The boy became excited; I noticed that he kept slipping into a foreign language. He told us that when the tide turned the sea would flow on to our end of the beach and he said we could build a dam and dig a swimming pool; he invited us to join in. We looked at our parents expectantly. Was it safe? my mother enquired. Entirely, their father reassured her, only the far side of the channel was dangerous. The boy butted in, he explained that a siren would sound when the tide turned and you must walk back at once or risk being cut off. He said people had drowned attempting to cross the channel. He enacted a dramatic watery death struggling and gurgling, finally falling silent and limp on the sand. He didn’t remain a corpse for long bouncing back up so that names could be exchanged. He must have enjoyed his performance as he re–enacted it year after year for all new holidaymakers.
Their mother, Serefina, was Italian and as she removed her sunglasses I saw that she and her son, Guido, shared the same dark penetrating eyes. The girl, Evie, took after her English father, James. To me, Serefina looked like a film star; her swimming costume was stylish, her hair black and she was shapely with olive skin. I compared her to my own mother whose pale thighs were covered in fine blue lines like the tributaries of a complex river system. My mother spent her days teaching unruly inner–city children and her evenings with a pile of books to mark; I thought it unlikely that Mrs Hillier worked. Our names, Mark and Susan, were dull in comparison, and we were always closely supervised by our mother. I could see that my parents were smitten by this glamorous, carefree family transplanted on to our beach.
We set off, our spades dragging in the sand leaving a meandering trail, suddenly Guido handed me his spade and said,
‘I forgot to kiss Mother goodbye.’
He ran back across the beach. I watched as his mother, who by now was reclining on a sun lounger, proffered her cheek. Having delivered his kiss Guido sped towards me and seized the spade from my hand.
‘Do you always kiss your Mother goodbye?’ I asked.
‘Of course. I never know when I might see her again.’ His unflinching gaze met mine.
‘I thought this wasn’t dangerous?’
‘It isn’t, unless I want it to be,’ he replied.
He struck out across the beach waving his spade and parrying like a musketeer, periodically flicking his head to remove a stray lock of dark hair from his eyes. He was lithe, agile and long limbed. I guessed that he was older than me.
Guido marked out the rectangle and instructed us to start digging. Mark and I piled sand in a line. Evie worked at a slower pace and said little. Every so often Guido would shout out orders: higher, pack it tighter, dig deeper. We followed his instructions without question. Other children joined in and Guido divided them into work gangs with specific tasks. It was hard as the deeper sand was wet and heavy. An hour later we had cut a rectangle for the swimming pool with a bank of sand forming a levee around it and a gulley cut to channel the water into it. We stood back and waited. At first the water was a gentle trickle with a dirty froth on the forward tide, then it gathered speed. I dipped my feet in.
‘Wait!’ Guido cried. ‘You must wait until I give the command.’
He stood in the centre of the pool, our imperious master, holding his spade out to repel any overexcited child. Finally, when the water reached the bottom of his swimming trunks, he shouted:
Whooping laughing children leapt into the shallow pool. Mark went ahead of me. I stepped into the water it was just deep enough to swim; Evie joined me. By now all the children were, splashing or swimming.
‘This is a brilliant,’ I said.
‘It won’t last,’ Evie responded, ‘it never does.’ Then she swam to the opposite side and rested in the water impassive and watchful.
I swam and then floated; it was lovely, so much better than waiting for my parents to escort me to the sea and keep watch. Suddenly there was a collective groan. I looked round to see that Guido had breached the retaining sandbank; soon we were all left standing on damp sand. All that digging and building, and Guido had broken it. I looked questioningly at Evie who shrugged her shoulders, climbed out and set off back towards the hut.
‘Did you have a lovely time?’ Serefina was wearing a kaftan, a wide–brimmed hat and sipping wine.
‘Guido broke the dam again,’ Evie complained. The resigned inevitability in her tone of voice suggested she expected no sanction or criticism of her brother. I began to understand Evie’s brooding, reticent nature.
Summers with the Hilliers continued in much the same vein for the next few years. Our holidays were arranged to coincide. It suited the parents to believe that we children got on, giving them the freedom to sit on the beach sharing wine and enjoying adult conversation without interruption.
Mr Hillier was in the City and only ever came for one week. They had other holidays, their proper holidays as Serefina called them. Coming to the seaside for the Hilliers was for the benefit of their children; fresh air and the advantages of mixing with ordinary, English children. ‘They have to understand that not everyone turns left when they enter an aircraft.’ I didn’t understand the remark until my father explained that for First Class seats one turned to the left. We always turned right. They went skiing and showed us photographs of Guido and Evie haring skilfully down slopes. One year they asked us to join them, but when my father looked into the cost the plan was dropped.
Gradually Evie and I became closer and Mark seemed to get along with Guido who remained in charge and displayed the easy arrogance of the privileged — poor Evie was always in his shadow and inconsequential just for being a girl. Only once did I see her lose her temper with her brother, kicking sand at him in tearful anger and storming off. I went after her and complained about boys in general in an attempt to make her feel better.
Then one year they didn’t come and that was the end of our holidays with the Hilliers. My father took the telephone call, Evie had glandular fever and so they’d decided against the English seaside. By now we were teenagers who were beginning to grate on one another and Guido, who was allowed alcohol, proved predictably unpleasant when drunk. One day, on the hut veranda, he made a grab for my breasts and when I pushed him backwards down the steps and onto the sand, his mother just laughed.
‘Oh my poor darling — spurned,’ she said, and then turning to me. ‘Well done Susan. This is all good practice for fending off troublesome boys; you will thank us one day.’
Our parents missed Serefina and James, their absence opened up the yawning conversational gap that middle–aged couples encounter. Mark and I read our books and tried to play beach cricket with a much reduced team. The year after that we holidayed in Corsica instead, and then I went to university to read English. Our parents continued their coastal holidays, occasionally Mark and I would join them for a few days.
The job prospects for a graduate of English were poor. Study something that leads to a decent job, my father suggested. A member of parliament and his vengeful wife had just been jailed for perjury. I was fascinated by the case, the legal process, and the way the egotistical seed of their downfall sheltered inside both of them. I decided to take a law conversion. There was no funding and the fees were a fortune; it meant living in London too. Studying over two years was my only option and I got a part–time job in the stationary department of a luxury store. It sold outrageously priced diaries and journals, hand–bound in the finest leathers and secured with ornate clasps. The cost of the merchandise was such that there was no question of wasting my paltry wages, even on the smallest journal.
One day, as I arranged a display, a group of young people were queuing at the till. Glittering young people with tanned skin dressed casually in artful designer clothes, I was used to the type, trust–fund brats, there were several at law school; I went to serve them. There in front of me was Guido, a beautiful cliché, very tall, dark and exceptionally handsome.
He looked at me, puzzled.
‘Susan,’ I reminded him. ‘Summer holidays? All that digging in the sand with my brother Mark.’ Guido looked uncomfortable. Clearly he did not wish to be publicly reminded of holidaying in Norfolk however trendy it had become.
‘Uh, Susan…yes,’ he said disdainfully. The friends, two leggy blonds and a hooray–Henry sort of chap that I recognised from a reality television show, listened to our conversation.
‘How are your family? Is Evie in London? It would be great to catch up with her,’ I said, while wrapping his purchases.
‘My parents are very well, thank you — Evie lives in Rome.’
I dealt with the transaction, handed Guido his packages and said goodbye. He was polite but cool. Returning to the display I watched as the group paused beside the monogrammed stationary.
‘Who on earth was that?’ One of the girls asked giggling.
Before Guido could reply the toff goaded him.
‘Buckets and spades…doesn’t sound your sort of thing Guido.’
‘She’s a nobody,’ Guido said. And then when pushed repeated: ‘Really she’s no one, he stated emphatically, but they pressed him for more information. ‘Mother briefly entertained the absurd idea that we should mix with ordinary children.’
Then they all burst out laughing.
At the beach, I was met by the same breath–taking view; the pale sand stretching effortlessly to greet the horizon, the sea having distanced itself from the shore by several miles. The dunes were dotted with marram grass and holidaymakers basking like indolent seals. In the far distance a heat haze lingered. I spent the afternoon lying in the sun revising for the next round of exams. Later, it got chilly and so I packed up and walked along the causeway to the town.
Sitting down in a café, I ordered hot chocolate. I flicked through a discarded local newspaper filled with wind farm protests and dull civic events. I turned a page and Guido stared out at me. He stood outside a Coroner’s Court next to a middle–aged woman; Mrs Templeton.
The article went on to explain that Mr Guido Hillier had organised a party for friends, they swam out to a sandbank and later became cut off by the incoming tide. Mr Hillier agreed that they had enjoyed some wine with their picnic, but stated that no one in the party would have been over the drink drive limit. He had taken the precaution of checking the time of the incoming tide, but then left his watch in the car. Realising they were cut off they swam back across the channel. Two of the group had got into difficulties and one, Juliet Templeton, a trainee broker, had drowned. Her body washed up three weeks later further down the coast.
Shocked, I read on. Mrs Templeton stated that she didn’t want any more young lives blighted by this a tragic accident. When asked by the Coroner, Dr Gray, whether he had heard the siren, Guido Hillier said he had but explained that he didn’t know what it meant; he was completely unaware of the danger. The Coroner thanked the witnesses for their frank account of the events and made recommendations about improving the warning signs. He expressed his admiration for the dignified composure of Mrs Templeton and her generosity in encouraging the other young people involved in the tragedy to move forward with their lives.
Once again I peered into Guido’s empty soul and recalled our conversation.
‘Do you always kiss your mother goodbye?’
‘Of course, I never know when I might see her again.’
‘I thought this wasn’t dangerous?’
‘It isn’t, unless I want it to be.’
I took out my notebook and wrote down the name of the coroner and sipping the frothy chocolate I began to feel warm again.