Esther was nine. She was, as her mother said, picky. Not so much about food (though nobody had yet tempted her to try a walnut or a mushroom) but about clothes (her top always had to be a lighter colour than her skirt or trousers - it was just right that way!) and about where things were. Her toy hippo had to be to the left of her Welsh doll with the tall hat, and her storybooks and what she called her “really” books, her word for non-fiction, kept on entirely different shelves. “It’s not even as if she’s especially tidy,” her mother sighed. But she bore her daughter’s ways, generally, with resigned humour. She wasn’t lazy and she wasn’t nasty, so it could much worse. Everyone assumed that Esther must be looking forward to the holiday by the sea – and they were staying THREE weeks, not the usual two. Esther wasn’t sure. It wouldn’t be her first holiday, or course, but the planned family break last year had to be cancelled as her grandmother was taken ill (though she made a full recovery and was now as fit as ever). And there’s a big difference between seven and nine, though there’d been weekends with relatives and the like in the interim. She and her grandma were close, and Esther confided , “Grandma, everyone thinks I should be so happy but I like having my own books, and the shop on the corner I’m allowed to go to myself and the swimming pool!”
“You’re too young to be set in your ways,” Grandma gently chided her, “And who needs a swimming pool when you’ve got the sea.” But privately, she had more than a modicum of sympathy for Esther. Her own holiday memories weren’t unalloyed bliss.
They were staying at the Vista del Mar guesthouse on the seafront. Well, not quite on the seafront, but what the landlady, Mrs Lewis, termed “only a step away.” Mrs Lewis, who told Esther’s parents and even Esther and her little brother Ewan to call her Dotty, was so keen to belie the image of the dragon-lady presiding over a guest house with an iron rod, that she went to the other extreme. Even Esther’s mum, who made a great show of saying Dotty was a real character and she loved her company, conceded that she could be a bit tiring.
Contrary to what some thought, Esther didn’t go out of her way to be “picky” for the sake of it, and there were things she liked about being by the sea. She liked the waves, especially when they widened into expanding ripples in the ridges on the beach. She liked dipping in the little pools with the net her parents bought her, though she never caught anything, and wasn’t sure what she’d do with it if she did. She liked the row of brightly coloured, if slightly faded beach houses, and wished her parents would rent one, but they said their hotel was so near the sea it wasn’t worth it. She liked collecting shells, though she learnt by experience that no matter how complete they looked half-buried in the sand, they were nearly always broken. And it was nice to sit in a deckchair (though they weren’t nearly as comfortable as they looked) and read one of the books she had bought with the pocket money she’d saved up from the charity shop run by the local RNLI. Even though her parents liked to read themselves, they tut-tutted and said that wasn’t the kind of thing she should be doing out on the beach in the sunshine. Why didn’t she go and help Ewan with his sandcastle? Ewan was five at the time. Esther loved him dearly, but at times he could be irksome. He wasn’t one of those infant architects whose creations seem far too beautiful to be washed away by the inrushing tide. The extent of his skills seemed to be putting sand in one bucket and depositing its burden, then looking betrayed and puzzled when he just put another one on top of it and the whole thing collapsed. He finally settled for a sand bungalow and methodically put flags in his single row of sand mounds that looked as if they’d been in an oversized jelly mould. When he finally tired of that he was determined he was going to be buried in the sand. Esther could think of nothing more unpleasant and hoped nobody expected her to do likewise.
She was momentarily relieved when her father announced that they were deserting the beach because there was a Punch and Judy show on the promenade. “Punch and Judy! Brilliant!” Ewan exclaimed. He was one of those children who are wont to go into ecstasies at the words “Punch and Judy” even if they aren’t quite sure what they mean.
Esther did, and her heart sank. She couldn’t decide if she thought they were boring or unsettling or both. But she knew she didn’t like them. Her parents were apparently convinced this was a mere passing aberration, and given time she’d be sure to fall under the magic spell. She didn’t. She hated the false squawking voices and the way they kept hitting each other (if she’d hit Ewan, she’d have been punished, and her parents wouldn’t have thought it was a bit funny, so how come they were laughing now?) She endured it and tried to let it drift over her, but when her dad asked her if she’d enjoyed it, she said frankly, “No. Not a bit.”
“Oh, Esther, you can be a bit of a prude and a killjoy” he sighed. “Why can’t you be more like Ewan?” Like most parents, they’d sworn never to compare their children like that, and certainly not to their faces, but like most parents, sometimes did. She jutted out her lower lip to stop herself crying, and to her relief, the urge passed, though she still thought it was unfair. She knew though her parents were generally easy-going, they hated their children whining that things were unfair. But they sometimes were. Later on, suing for peace, her dad bought her her favourite ice-cream – just vanilla, but with a chocolate flake. “I shouldn’t have called you that, Ess,” he said (he shouldn’t have called her “Ess” either – she hated it!) “But – “ His sentence hung in the air. He decided to leave it at “but”. Esther let it drop and enjoyed her ice cream, though the cone, as usual, was a letdown.
The next day it was raining, and Esther would have been perfectly happy to sit in her bedroom – it was on the third floor, and she could see the sea - watching the grey waves and the clouds and the seagulls that swooped and squawked (oddly, she didn’t mind their squawking at all) and reading. Dotty didn’t mind guests staying in their rooms in the daytime. At least not on principle. But she’d organised a games session in the lounge and was sure the “kiddies” would like to join in. “We can play cards,” she said, “My grandson Luke’s here!” Though Esther would have preferred to be left with her book, she could live with this. Grandmas were useful when it came to card games – thanks to hers she was a skilled Gin Rummy player. But the cards Dotty got out didn’t come with hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades – they came with Mr Bun the baker and his kin and all the other tradespeople and theirs. Happy Bloody Families, she thought, using a naughty word in her own mind and wondering if she would actually come out with it and wait for the reaction. She didn’t. Though she had her own issues with her mum and dad, she wasn’t having Dotty think she wasn’t brought up properly. The one positive was that she tacitly made her peace with her little brother. Ewan was too fond of doing tedious things with sand and hooting with laughter at irritating, vaguely sinister puppets, but he had some standards, and could barely conceal his amazement that Luke, who was two years older than he was, was so fascinated by the game and not even a good player.
And they were over the hump of the holiday. Only a week left now!
Esther was fifteen. She was hungry but not sure she was looking forward to dinner at the Hotel Wellington. It was odd. Hotels in Britain tended to have names like Vista del Mar, or, more recently, Bellevue, where they had stayed last year in Scotland, but this hotel on the Costa Brava was called Wellington and the one where they’d been a couple of years ago in Italy was called Osborne House. She’d recently developed a taste for historical novels and decided Queen Victoria would not have approved.
The Wellington’s food was famous, or so it said in their highly-coloured brochure. Some of it was fine. She loved the little pastries they had at breakfast, though she couldn’t help thinking that her parents even imposed an embargo on cereals with too much sugar for breakfast at home. But now she knew for sure what she had suspected for years – holidays were different, and not always (though she had no complaints about the pastries!) in a good way. She liked the paella, too, though she wasn’t sure she shared her mum’s delight that, “Oh, it’s a million times better than the ones we get in the packets at home, there’s no comparison!” Esther had an uneasy relationship with seafood. She loved the taste of it, but preferred it at one removed from its natural state. In her opinion bits of claw and shell were best removed before anything came anywhere near her mouth. Ewan was still sulking because she’d been allowed a glass of sangria and he hadn’t, and she had teased him mercilessly at first, saying how wonderful it was. Only later did she relent and whisper “Actually it’s not that marvellous. Just like fruit juice with bits in and it made me feel swimmy.” He only muttered, “Wish you’d make your ruddy mind up!”Anyway, though she hadn’t been over-impressed by the taste, it hadn’t made her feel swimmy, despite her mum’s fears. She was beginning to realise she might have a head for alcohol!
Mum and Dad had glasses of red wine with their dinner, but Esther and Ewan had little bulbous bottles of Orangina which seemed exotic, but were only fizzy orange when all was said and done.
She steeled herself for dinner. They were, for the first time on that holiday, starting with soup. “How very English,” Dad said, and not exactly approvingly though he prided himself on his patriotism. He was wrong. This was Gazpacho. Esther liked the word, but that was as far as it went. She stared in horror at the gory, gelid gloop in her dish. She took a sip from the tip of her spoon and forced it down. There were no ingredients in it she actually disliked, but cold soup was wrong. She knew she wouldn’t be able to get the whole bowlful down. “Please may I be excused,” she said, “I’m not feeling very well. I’ll be fine. I just need some fresh air.”
“Oh, what a little old woman you can be,” her Mum said affectionately. “But you do look a bit peaky. By all means, but don’t stray too far from the hotel.”
Oh, for pity’s sake, thought Esther. Grandma had left school when she was my age. Still, nobody had protested. Ewan, at least, was too busy shovelling gazpacho into his mouth. With the exception of asparagus, they’d never yet found a food he didn’t like. The Wellington was right by the sea. It didn’t have a private beach but looked as if it did. Esther was relieved to be out of the stuffy dining room and away from the gazpacho (though she was still hungry!) but suddenly felt she didn’t belong anywhere. She was too old to be one of the little kids playing catch with a beachball, but too young to be accepted by the tall, tanned group at the barbecue (and it did smell good!). She might have been the right age to join the game of volleyball, and she wasn’t a bad player, but they were all local, and she was an outsider.
She walked along the pebbly beach and wished that she wasn’t wearing her “proper” shoes. She could see a fishing boat out in the distance. They day before they had been on an excursion to a nearby little fishing village, and she hadn’t expected to enjoy it, but she had. But now that day was over and she could only look at a bobbing boat on the almost too blue water. “Hey, Esther, fancy a burger?” someone called over from the barbecue. She wondered how they knew her name, but neither the hotel nor the resort were that large. She wasn’t sure if the tone was genuinely friendly, or had at least an element of pity or sarcasm in it. But she did fancy a burger. She could almost hear Ewan taunting, “Are you sure it’s the burger you fancy?” The speaker, who was called Ben, was one of the most tall and most tanned of all, and as she knew perfectly well, his girlfriend, Dawn, who was almost as tall and tanned was standing by him, looking at Esther as if she were a tedious ten year old to be indulged. Suddenly the burger seemed as unappetising as the gazpacho.
Esther was 35. It seemed as if the twins had never stopped screaming in delight since she and Harry first told them they were going to Florida. Sophie and Samuel, the pigeon-pair hyperactive ten year olds whom she loved more dearly than life itself but who could drain her in five minutes. This holiday was pushing their finances, but as Harry said, “They’re going up to high school in September, and you know how it is – after that they’re never really kids again. Let’s let them see Disneyworld while they’re still young enough.” Esther had always thought Mickey Mouse was over-rated, but she could still hear her dad saying she was a killjoy, and didn’t want Harry to say it. Harry and Florida were made to go together. She supposed there was something endearing about the way he took at least as much pleasure in it as the children. He was wearing a vivid top with a pattern of tangerine palm trees and turquoise fish, the kind that made people ask if you were wearing it for a dare. He’d have just given a wide grin and said, disarmingly, “No, because I like it!” He had already decided they were going to a famous seafood restaurant for lunch, “They have the most fantastic crab and lobster, Brett at the hotel says!” Why can’t I have children who are picky eaters, thought Esther, responding like a trained dog to the waves from Harry and the twins, who were playing with a pink Frisbee that clashed horribly with Harry’s shirt. Why do they have to take after their dad and their Uncle Ewan and wolf down everything like manna? She looked out to sea, out to the vast ocean, beyond the surfers and the swimmers and the screechers, and she looked back, along the beach, where the swarms were thinning out and she could see some straw huts and thought longingly of being in one. I love the sea, she thought, I love almost everything about it, apart from being on holiday there! If only I could enjoy it my own way! Guilt washed over her with the regularity but none of the freshness of ripples on the beach. I am married to a good man who loves me, have children I adore and a job I enjoy (she was an illustrator). We’re not rich, but we’re comfortably off. We can afford holidays to Florida (just) and yet I have to be different. I have to pick fault and brood and not just be grateful. She sighed, and it was plain the woman beside her on the beach had heard, and she thought if she tells me, cheer up, it may never happen, I might just murder her.
She did not say it, and of course Esther did not commit murder. I will eat my lobster or crab or whatever clawed and shelled horrors they put on my plate like a good girl, she thought. My children and my husband will not think I am a killjoy or a picky eater, or no more than they do already. To her relief the restaurant also offered plaice, which she ordered with almost pathetic gratitude, and the worst she was accused of was being unadventurous. It was excellent, but she’d have enjoyed it far more without the ominous crunching noises from her family and the surrounding diners. She took a deep draught of chilled white wine and told herself Sophie’s exclamation of “You’re thirsty, Mummy!” was entirely innocent. Over dinner Harry asked how they would like to go to the Everglades the next day? The twins weren’t sure what they were, though Sophie had inherited her mother’s love of words and decided that just the word “everglade” was enough. Samuel was distracted from his pleas for another trip to Disneyworld by the promise of crocodiles. I wouldn’t mind seeing some crocodiles myself, thought Esther, averting her eyes from the pile of crustacean debris littering the others’ plates.
Esther was 50. She was spending her first holiday at her little cottage by the North Sea – and she had already decided she might live their permanently and sell the house in town. It was an old fisherman’s cottage, white-washed, with a thatch roof, and though, if she listened very hard she could hear the summer clamour in the resort town, it was far enough away. There were no amusement arcades or Punch and Judy shows near Marina Cottage, only tussocks of sea-grass and rolling dunes and ripples breaking on the shore.
Sophie and Samuel had their own lives to lead now, though they kept in touch regularly, and she was proud of them both, and liked Sam’s girlfriend Ruby very much. Sophie was too intent on making the transition from intern to consultant to bother with a relationship at the moment. But she’d wanted to be a doctor since she was four, and couldn’t be happier. Esther and Harry had separated, but amicably. They were still friends.
And her illustrations had recently had an upsurge in popularity and she had her own home by the sea, on her own terms, with nobody telling her what to do and what to enjoy, and nobody calling her picky or a killjoy.
She was happier than she had ever been in her life.
Apart from the times when she woke in the small hours, and the song of the sea made her suddenly feel very, very lonely.