In my hand is the black and white photo taken by Dad with his Box Brownie camera the last summer my family went to the beach. Behind me is the pier. Hovering in the shadow is a hazy figure.
The picture is black and white, but now the pier has been repainted and is garlanded with coloured flags while the new rides have flashing neon signs, which scream for attention. I wander across the sand, photo in hand, searching for where Dad took the shot.
My family went to the seaside every summer. We didn’t stay in the big hotels with names like ‘Grand’ or ‘Victoria’, but in one of the guesthouses to the south. It meant we had to walk each morning along the shore, Mam clutching towels and mats, Dad carrying the picnic and deck chairs and me with my tin bucket and spade.
“Don’t get wet,” Mam said as I drifted along the low tide line poking at seaweed with the toe of my shoe. The salt made a mark around my Clarks sandals and the leather crisped in the sun.
We would settle near the pier with the smell of fish and chips and candyfloss wafting towards us.
“Don’t go too deep,” Dad warned as I splashed in the shallows.
There were a lot of ‘don’ts’ at the beach.
After lunch, when Mam and Dad dozed in the sun, I escaped to the shadow land under the pier. Laughter and music floated down from above and I envied the people up there. I looked forward to the last day of the holiday, when for a treat, we would pay our entrance fee, ride the helter-skelter, push pennies in the slot machines and gorge on sugared almonds from a thrupenny twist.
Beneath the pier however, was another world. The air was chill and drained of colour. It made me shiver but drew me in. The wrought iron legs that supported the boardwalk above were rusty and the concrete stanchions were stained orange and knobby with shells. Beyond this underworld the sea sparkled like crystals of sugar and the waves broke against the piles in a misty spray. This was my space.
I dug my spade into a pool of salt water at the base of a piling. A crab scuttled away.
I jumped. A tanned lad with spiky hair, liquid brown eyes, a frayed sweater and faded shorts stepped round from the other side of the concrete.
“Nothing.” My face flushed. “What are you doing?”
He looked me straight in the eye and shrugged.
“Waiting for you.”
We played hide and seek, in and out of the spaces under the pier. He was good. I ran up and down checking around each piling but couldn’t find him until he wanted to be found. As soon as my back was turned he disappeared into the dark and I had to search for ages before he calmly stepped out against the light and I could see him.
When it was time for me to go I emerged, blinking, on to the sand. He hung back under the pier. Mam and Dad were packing up the picnic and folding the towels ready for the walk back to the guesthouse. I turned and gave him a quick wave.
Next day I waited anxiously for lunch to be over and Mam and Dad to drop off to sleep. The boy was waiting in the shadows. We stayed under the pier and he showed me the barnacles attached to the piles, anemones in the pools and we had a competition to find the longest razor shell. He washed pebbles so they gleamed like treasure. When he handed them to me I noticed his fingers were webbed.
“Where do you live?” I asked him on the third afternoon.
“Here,” he said, gesturing at the sea.
“In the water?”
“Oh.” I didn’t argue, but gave him sidelong looks all afternoon. Was he winding me up?
When I had to leave I kept looking back hoping to see him go into the water.
On the last day I challenged him to prove it.
“Go on, show me.”
He shrugged but made his way down the sand between the barnacle-encased piles and into the sea. Without turning he splashed out. I waited, expecting him to come back but he didn’t. A few seconds later a seal bobbed up in the dark water amid the pilings.
“Sarah?” Mam’s voice echoed in the cavernous space. “We’re going on the pier now.”
I raced over to my parents. Breathless.
“I’ve seen a seal!”
“Really? Here, take your bucket and spade.”
“Sarah, pick up your shoes,” Dad said.
As we left all thoughts were driven from my mind by the excitement of the pier.
The following year we didn’t go to the beach. My parents had chosen Butlins for our holiday.
“So you can have some friends to play with,” Mam said.
When Dad died last year I cleared out the old photos from the attic. I showed Mam the picture of me on the beach with the pier in the background.
“Goodness,” said Mam, pointing at the outline lurking in the shadows. “Is that the dirty little pikey you played with?”
“He wasn’t a —“ I began, but I knew Mam wouldn’t understand.
Remembering that summer I’ve come back to visit. My husband and children have headed to the pier. The boys are excited and want to try the rides. They can’t understand why I’m drawn to explore the underworld when all the activity is up above.
I look at the photo and step into the shade where the outline of my friend stood in the photo. I stare at the murky swell lapping between the piles. Something dark is bobbing in the water and with a sudden jolt I realise a seal with liquid brown eyes is staring back at me from just beyond the breaking waves.