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I always knew I’d go back there. Even that time when I thought I’d never be able to. The terrible day my mum died. She’d left months before. I never even said goodbye.
The waves crashed onto the shore. It was grey and cold that day. The sea was rough. Portobello could be so different depending on the weather. Dad was throwing driftwood in for the dogs. Meg hung about on the edge, not sure whether to go in after the stick or run back to her master, but Olly was haring down the sand to retrieve the stick. I don’t know where Granny was, me and Dad were on the beach on our own that day.
I was at the very edge of the water, the bit where it peters out, sinking into the sand. Because it the middle of March, it was cold and I had wellies on for paddling. I always used to walk at the very edge if it was cold. In my hand I had dog leads. My fingers were numb and so was my nose. It wasn’t frosty, just really, really cold.
The sky was grey, like child had forgotten to colour it in. Even the gulls were quiet. All I could here was the sound of waves and Dad calling to the dogs. The beach was empty, no one except us ever wanted to be down by the sea on a day like this. I always liked it better when it was cold. It was emptiness and the space which you just felt was yours to do what ever you wanted and that no one could interfere.
Suddenly, we heard Granny calling for us. “Paul,” she was yelling, “Paul.” Dad quickly handed me the stick, that he had been about to throw for the dogs, and sprinted up the sand to Granny. I threw it far out in to the crashing waves. I don’t know how, but at that moment I knew something bad was coming. I knew it was even worse than what I had felt when Mum left. She had deserted us, just like that, a few months before Christmas. Said she had some wonderful job as a waitress on an old fashioned steamer. She’d believed that this job was more important that all of us. More important than her house, her husband, her daughter and her dying mother. She’d left us with my other Granny, who even I just called MJ sometimes, to look after us. I was angry with her not because she’d left us but because all she had thought about was herself.
“Alex,” Dad was putting the leads on the dogs, “Alex, I think we’d better go and get fish and chips for tea. Then I’ve got something to tell you.” He sounded so sad. He didn’t really want to get fish and chips but he wanted to make me happy and he knew it was my favourite. Granny had gone home. She didn’t want to be there when he told me. She had already had to tell him.
We sat on a park bench in a park neither of us knew very well and ate in silence. Usually fish and chips was a happy, cheerful meal but after what my father had told me neither of us really felt like talking.
“Alex, your mother was a forgetful woman at times but one thing she never, ever forgot was you. She was also selfish and as you’ve only seen her selfishness once, I think you probably brought the best out of her. You’ve been never really been very close to me but these last few months we’ve suddenly grown to be closer and after what’s just happened we’re going to have to get closer still.”
“Dad, I don’t understand. Mum’s alright, isn’t she?”
“No, Alex, that’s what I need to tell you. Katherine’s ship, well, it’s sunk. They only got the message a few hours ago and a man in the library told Granny. They don’t know who is alive and who isn’t but they know what caused it was an oil spill. An oil spill from the electricity place. Portobello Electrics. It got carried from the beach into the North Sea and sunk the ship. I am so sorry, Alex. But I think Katherine’s probably dead.”
‘No,” I thought to myself, “mum, can’t be dead. She can’t be.” Dad was worried because I wasn’t saying anything. I dumped my paper of chips in a bin and ran down to the shore. I picked up anything I could see, mostly old bottles people had left and broken glass. My fingers bled but I didn’t care. I chucked anything I could see into the sea. I could never go there again after that. My mother was dead. I would never see her again. The last time I had seen her, I hated her. But now, I loved her with all my heart. I couldn’t stop crying.
It was dark and tide had gone out. Me and Dad just sat there on the sand both of us crying, sobbing into our hands. We sat there long into the night. I don’t know what granny must have thought. She had probably just gone to bed and hoped we’d come back in one piece.
I couldn’t do anything for weeks after Mum died. I certainly couldn’t go near the sea. I never went back there when I was a child. When I was 18, I nearly went but it was the summer and it was full of people. It spoilt the effect.
But now 30 years later, here I am. Finally, Portobello Beach. The place I grew up. I found mine and dad’s picnic spot and Granny’s toilet. I found the place where me and Dad sat crying for hours. I found the place Meg buried a bone but then lost it. I found the spot that I always looked for crabs.
And the waves crashed onto the shore. It was grey and cold that day. The sea was rough. Portobello could be so different depending on the weather.