Becca looked at Ellie over her sunglasses. ‘Baby game,’ she said.
Ellie was standing in front of Becca’s beach towel with her legs planted far apart, her toes kneading the sand. She’d been holding up two wooden paddles and a bright blue ball at arms-length, but now they lowered in time with her eyebrows. Becca got to her feet, tossed the glasses to the sand and flipped her hair over, gathering it into a fountain before hiking her terry shorts up to her navel. She reached behind and disengaged them from her bum, then lay back down on the towel. She tilted her chin towards the sun filtering through the cloud over the Irish Sea like a torch shone through a dirty sock.
Ellie looked down at her own shorts, which were in fact Becca’s. She hiked them up past her navel and rolled the waistband over so that the fabric creased where it met her thighs, and the bottom seam of her bikini was visible at the sides where the shorts formed an inverted V. She adjusted her bikini top—her own, new that year. She had bought it in the city centre with friends. Its purchase had raised Mum’s eyebrow and induced audible nose-breathing from Dad, but Becca had one, so why should Ellie not?
Ellie threw one paddle down near Becca, casting a bit of sand onto her sister’s feet. ‘Haddock,’ Ellie heard, as she walked off along the nearly empty beach. Thomas was poking a jellyfish with a stick. Dad was standing at the edge of the water, hands in pockets, staring towards the opposite shore where the hem of the harbour skirted round. Ellie cast the ball straight up and started paddling it by herself, counting under her breath and holding out her other arm like a high-wire walker.
At seventeen, a light shower of sand scattered across the paddle. Thomas was squatting nearby, holding the other paddle with its edge just tucked into the sand in front of him, watching Ellie and smiling. He flicked his wrists ever so slightly and the paddle flipped a few teaspoons of sand onto Ellie. He giggled.
‘Thomas!’ Ellie said. ‘Stop that!’ She turned away and carried on her game. Thomas flicked a little more sand towards her back, then gave the jellyfish a good thwack, making Ellie jump and drop the ball. She huffed loudly and retrieved it.
Becca shaded her eyes and watched her younger siblings a moment before returning to cloud-bathing. Mum had come back from the toilets and settled herself into the low chair beside, her face largely hidden behind sunglasses and magazine, but she turned to Becca and gave her a long look before folding over the page and carrying on reading.
Thomas walked, deliberately stiff-legged, between dead jellyfish, streams of dried seaweed and ocean-heaped sand, periodically turning the paddle on its edge to bash at some oddment. He wandered, unseeing, towards Ellie’s solo game. She was mouthing ‘fifty-six’ when she backed into him.
‘Thomas!’ Ellie shouted.
Thomas dodged a swat from Ellie’s paddle. Dad, in the distance, sighed visibly and walked up the beach.
He scooped up another ball and waved it at Thomas. ‘Here y’are, Thomas. I’ll throw it, and you can hit it to me. All right. Thomas, all right?’ Thomas was watching Ellie. ‘Thomas? I’ll throw it. Like playing catch, except you hit it, and I throw it.’
Thomas turned to his father.
‘Now, just hit it to me, Thomas,’ Dad said gently. ‘Nice and easy.’ He tossed the ball.
Thomas, chin tucked, swung the paddle with a lazy twist of his body. TONK. The ball skittered across the sand, well beyond Dad and his expectations.
‘Oh,’ said Dad. He jogged down the beach to fetch it.
Thomas turned back to Ellie, who was huddled over a jellyfish, examining it. He hunched into position with the paddle.
‘Thomas!’ Ellie screamed. She jumped up as the sand came down. Thomas smiled, flicking more sand. Ellie batted at it with her paddle as she backed away. ‘Stop it!’
‘Stop throwing sand, Thomas,’ Mum said. She turned the page of her magazine.
‘Thomas,’ Dad called mildly. Thomas turned back to him. ‘Here we go, Thomas. Now just hit it gently to me, all right?’ He tossed the ball again, and Thomas tapped it with the paddle, sending it back into his father’s palm. ‘That’s it! That’s it, Thomas! Let’s do it again now. Right back to me, all right.’ Thomas catapulted the next one down the stretch of sand.
‘Oh, Thomas,’ said Dad as he followed it.
Thomas watched his father jog for a moment. Then he chopped at a heap of sand with the paddle – tentatively for the first dozen or so strokes, and then in a frenzy. Sand flew at Ellie.
‘Thomas!’ she shouted.
The paddle-edge cracked against a stone beneath the sand surface, and Thomas’s arm juddered up to reveal a split across the face of the paddle.
‘Oh, Thomas.’ Mum sighed from her low-set chair. ‘Here. Have one from other set.’ With an effort she threw across a blue plastic paddle sporting a clear plastic centre with ‘KAAAPOW!’ in bubbly green letters. It fell short. Thomas stomped over and picked it up, dropping the broken wooden paddle in its place.
‘Okay then, Thomas,’ called Dad. ‘Hit it to me, now. Nice and easy, right? All right.’ He floated the ball towards Thomas who obliged with a scarce tap. The ball retravelled a few feet. The paddle made a thunderous reverberation. Dad flinched but recovered in time to fall to his knees and catch the barely airbound ball in an outstretched hand.
‘Well done, Thomas,’ he said as he stood and brushed sand through his leg hair and down into his shoes. ‘Well done. Now,’ He gasped slightly, ‘again, eh?’ He moved the ball towards his son once more.
Thomas smashed it. Dad’s eyes followed as the ball sailed far over his head and landed with a mushy plop into the edge of the surf.
‘Thomas, you fetch it,’ Mum called without looking up.
Thomas walked with feet slapping the sand, legs kicking out to the sides in a cantering, coltish walk-run in the direction of the water.
Becca lay on her front, head cradled in her arms. Ellie prodded her sister’s foot with the edge of her paddle. Becca told her to sod off. Ellie leaned over and whispered in her sister’s ear, jumping back as Becca’s arm sprung out like a striking cobra. As she walked away, Ellie stretched her full length to give Becca’s foot a final jab and then skipped away laughing Becca flipped onto her back in a fury.
‘Give over, Ellie,’ said Mum.
Ellie laughed and went back to paddling the ball.
Dad, hands in the pockets of his long shorts, watched Thomas trot back. He pointed towards a beached jellyfish, which the boy skirted, but not before giving it a solid wallop with the paddle-edge. Thomas handed the wet ball to his father and carried on past him.
‘Alright, Thomas,’ Dad said, ‘let’s try again. This time, try to hit it to me, all right. Easy, right? Easy.’ He threw the ball underhand, to Thomas, who stood with the paddle held out at arm’s length until the very last moment. Then he swung it up to his head, windmilling it back and up with explosive force. Again, Dad flinched.
The cacophonous shudder gave way to a squeaking split as the ball broke through the film across the face of the paddle and thumped into the sand behind Thomas’s leg.
‘Thomas!’ Becca yelled. ‘You broke another one!’
‘Oh, Thomas!’ Mum said. ‘How many of them paddles are you going to destroy?’
‘Thomas, you prawn-head!’ screamed Ellie with pleasure.
‘Oh, Thomas,’ said Dad, with an edge of irritation creeping into his voice as he looked heavenward. He ran a hand over the rough lower half of his face and kicked at the sand before turning his attention towards the sea and away from his family.
Thomas stood smiling, unsure, his one front tooth biting his lower lip. He ran towards Ellie and attempted to flick sand at her with the broken paddle, then resorted to picking up handfuls and flinging it. She shrieked, batting it away. Finally she threw down her paddle, hiked her shorts as high as they would go, and gave chase. The two children ran across the waterfront, flinging and kicking sand and seaweed at each other, screaming and laughing in turns. Becca watched from beside their mother, who pretended to ignore it. Dad had walked a good distance away, hands behind his back. The siblings’ mad dance splashed into the water, and they separated, smiling.
Thomas approached Becca, who was once again supine, eyes closed against the day’s grey rays. She sensed his presence and, shielding her sunglasses from the white sky’s glare, tilted her chin to her chest. ‘Don’t throw sand, Thomas,’ she said.
Thomas paused, grinning, hands clenched, then he darted away, a jubilant faun, casting up his fists to release a confetti of sand. A small dusting scattered across Mum’s magazine.
‘Don’t throw sand, Thomas,’ she echoed, without looking up.
Ellie ran screeching across the tableau, deliberately kicking sand in all directions, laughing as she slowed and circled round. Thomas jumped with jittery excitement at the edge.
‘Ellie!’ Mum shouted, flapping sand from her magazine. ‘I don’t know what’s the matter with you. I’m sure they swapped you at hospital with some fairy child. You’ve got something wrong, you have.’
‘You’re both accidents anyways!’ Becca shouted, sitting up to brush sand from her arms and fix her hair. ‘I were only planned one!’
Mum chuckled and sat back again, shaking open her magazine.
Ellie dashed round Becca and dumped a scoop of sand directly onto her hair, snaking away before Becca could grab her. Thomas watched from his perch on a mound of sand.
‘I’m going to have to shower now before tea, Ellie. Mum! I’m going to have to go back and shower before we go to the restaurant. I can’t go with sand in my hair. Ellie! I can’t go out to eat with sand in my hair, you absolute clam.’
Ellie burst out laughing. ‘Bag—’
‘BAGSY FIRST!’ Becca thundered.
Ellie choked on her laughter, tears rolling down her cheeks. ‘Bagsy second.’
‘I bagsy second,’ Thomas whined from his perch.
‘Shut up, Thomas!’ all three women shouted in unison.
Thomas grinned. Becca sat, cross-legged, and tried to gather up her hair again, sand and salt sticking in the strands. Suddenly she rocked forward over her folded legs and scrambled onto all fours, then launched herself at Ellie. Ellie shrieked and Becca laughed murderously. Sand flew. Ellie broke away and stalked off, shaking her hair and bikini free of debris. Becca, grinning, created her mirror image in the other direction. Thomas leaped around them both. Dad walked back from the surf, wearing an expression of bemusement.
Mum watched with half an eye over the top of her magazine. She shifted herself forward in her squat seat, and reached for her phone.
‘Now you’re all up,’ she puffed as she stood, phone held delicately with her fingertips, ‘let’s have a photo.’
Megan is a swimming teacher in Yorkshire. She has a family she loves, a job she loves and a kidney donor she loves. She can’t really complain, but sometimes she does anyway.