Her name was Denise, but everyone called her The Donkey Lady. She supposed she ought to mind, and supposed she once had, but now she was perfectly happy with it, and sometimes had to think for a second and check herself before filling in such official forms as she couldn’t avoid.
She’d been the Donkey Lady on the beach for six years, but it seemed both to herself and others as if it had been for decades. She’d had other jobs; she’d been in catering, and had even had a spell in an office, but now she was doing what she wanted to do, and she was happy. Oh, she had her little irritations, and wasn’t constantly smiley, but she woke up in the mornings looking forward to the day.
She lived in a little smallholding on the outskirts of the seaside town that was shabby and past its sell-by date, but still popular with its faithful visitors, and every morning in the holiday season she shepherded her donkeys, Blossom, Benny, Beano, Barney and Belle onto the beach.
She was easy-going and well-loved, but she had her red lines, and she stuck to them. She resolutely refused to saddle her donkeys with those heavy ornamental saddles that some beach donkeys had to wear. Her donkeys wore light and soft saddles. And she would not let adults ride them, no matter how much they tried to cajole her because it would make such a good photograph. Adults were too heavy, and that was that. By all means they could be photographed with the donkeys – that was fine. But not on them!
But the Donkey Lady was beginning to think that Belle, her newest donkey, who had replaced Billy when he died last year (and oh, how she had mourned her faithful friend, though she was realistic enough to know that donkeys didn’t live forever) just wasn’t made for riding on the beach. There was something so shy and, well, so delicate about her. She was friendly enough, but not in that cheeky, mischievous way that the others were. So far as the Donkey Lady knew she hadn’t been ill-treated, and like all her donkeys, she had regular health checks, but she always seemed a little out of place, a little ill at ease, and as if she wasn’t enjoying it at all.
The children seemed to know it too, and often she was the last donkey to be picked for a ride, or wasn’t picked at all. “Oh, Belle, my love, what are we going to do?” the Donkey Lady asked, fondling her ears. Belle looked at her so plaintively, as if to say, I do my best, and I can’t help being the way I am, you know.
The Donkey Lady wasn’t the only one who was worried and fretful on the beach that day, as the sun shone, and the waters of the North Sea lapped on the golden sands, and it was as near to a perfect summer day as you could imagine.
Tina Banks was worried about her little boy, six-year old Owen. Well, of course she was. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been, or at least since he was taken ill four years ago. It had been touch and go, and there had been months when both of them were at the hospital more than they were at home. But now, all the doctors had assured her, he was absolutely fine, and the time for anxiety was past.
Owen was a child who was both too old and too young for his years, both heartbreakingly brave and heartbreakingly fearful.
He had borne operations and traumatic procedures with a stoicism and courage that had made Tina want to weep with both pride in her son and anger that he had to endure such things.
But now he needed to have them no longer, and it was normal life that seemed to scare him.
While he had lain in his hospital bed, attached to monitors and machines, Tina had promised him, like a mantra, “When you’re well again, and it won’t be too long, you can go to the same beach that Mummy used to go to when she was little, and breathe the same sea air, and even have a ride on a donkey.”
His eyes had lit up at that, and Tina was overjoyed when she was able to make it come true. But now it seemed that her dreams, if not turning into nightmares (she wasn’t someone who used the word nightmare lightly now!) weren’t turning into reality the way she had hoped. He didn’t even really want to come to the beach. He didn’t throw a tantrum about it – she might almost have preferred it if he had – but just asked, quietly, “Can’t we stay in the hotel room, Mummy?” Though she had made a point of not spoiling him because of his poor health, she had also never begrudged him little things she could give him. But now she said, “No, sweetie, we can’t – you’ll be glad when you’re there, you’ll see!”
He was used to doing things he didn’t want to and things he found scary. With a resigned little sigh he let her take his hand and lead him to the beach. He desultorily collected a few shells, but so many things seemed to be gritty or slimy, and when he saw people go into the sea, he was sure they must drown. Tina was desperately torn between her instinct to protect him and the knowledge that if he were to have the normal life that his health now meant he could, she must sometimes harden her heart and not wrap him in cotton wool.
Once more, Belle hadn’t been chosen for a ride, and, still keeping an eye on her other donkeys to make sure all was in order whilst they trotted up the beach, the Donkey Lady, keeping to her own firm rules about not riding him, led her up and down so he could have a walk. It was Belle, not the Donkey Lady, who paused by Tina and Owen.
Owen looked up from his shells and eyed the pair. The Donkey Lady wished them good morning, and Tina introduced them. For all his nervousness, Owen wasn’t shy around people, and was more used to adult company than most children his age. The Donkey Lady didn’t generally tote for business, but something made her ask, “Would Owen like a ride?”
Tina was about to say that she was sorry, but Owen hadn’t been well, and probably wasn’t up to it yet.
But Owen had seen Belle, and Belle had seen Owen. Two pairs of nervous eyes met, and two pairs of nervous eyes became trusting and calm. Tina lifted Owen onto Belle’s back, and he seemed to instinctively know just the place where she liked her ears to be given a gentle scratch. Just to be sure, Tina kept an arm round her son, and the Donkey Lady led Belle, but they knew that before very long it wouldn’t be necessary.
Boy and donkey were so much a part of each other, that some of the more fanciful folk on the beach that day said it was almost as if a gentle, quirky little centaur were trotting around.
Of course, there wasn’t. There was nothing mythical about it.
But perhaps there was still a touch of magic!