Pete, February 1999
They were looking for crystals. As always, it was a competition. Last time she had collected more than him, and now, by rights, it was his turn to win. The beach was a gigantic stretch of opportunity, and with his new spectacles, he was sure he was unbeatable.
‘You don’t understand Lucy. These glasses are part of my ar-se-nal,’ he boasted as they walked down to the beach, the brittle wind turning the tips of his ears and nose first pink and then blue. He knew Lucy wouldn’t understand what arsenal meant. He’d heard the word last week on Doctor Who and she didn’t have a television at her house. ‘So I’ll win this time, you wait and see.’
She laughed at him, tugging at her shabby school kilt, unsuccessfully attempting to pull it down over her knees. ‘Not if you couldn’t see properly in the first place! Now you’ll just see the same as me, not better.’
He stuck his tongue out at her. Why was she always one step ahead of him, always that little bit smarter? But at least it took the shame away from previous defeats. Astigmatic, that’s what the optician in Ashington had said, before handing him a lollipop – a sort of fake Chupa Chup – and cuffing him under the chin. It made him feel special and he decided it didn’t matter that the lollipop was missing a corner and that it was a strawberry one, when cola was his favourite.
He didn’t often feel special. Noticed. Last time they’d played this, he’d run home to his parents, red-faced with glee to show them his spoils, and his father had merely grunted.
‘Just ruddy bits of glass you bloomin’ eejit. Crystals!’
Peter had stared down at the tiny pieces in his hand, their once-jagged edges now smooth – sparkling lots of colours: brown, green, blue but mostly clear. The clear ones he believed were diamonds, those things his mam was always going on about wanting, like rich southern people had. He tried to polish one of them up to give to her as a present, but no matter how hard he’d rubbed it with bits of sandpaper stolen from the battered cupboard in the fish house, it wouldn’t gleam like he wanted it to.
That didn’t matter anymore though, not now the game was in force. All he cared about was winning. He watched Lucy running along the beach. Every now and then she bent down, sometimes leaping back up with a smile, other times hauling herself to her feet, disappointed. He liked watching Lucy, even though she was annoying and she was a girl. She was his best friend and she never got mad with him, no matter what he did or said. Not like his dad.
But she was being stupid now – they had covered that part of the beach last week. He headed off in the opposite direction.
At the far end were lots of rocks. He had to climb around them to get to the other side but he didn’t mind. As usual, there was no one else about and in his head he was an adventurer, discovering new territory. The sea was a frightening grey mass that he’d learnt to ignore.
Scrambling over the biggest rock, he found himself in a clearing. He had always loved the perfect vanilla-yellow sand. He walked slowly up and down, methodically scouring the ground, and after only ten minutes, he had six crystals in his pocket. And then, closer to the sea, he spotted a real rarity – a deep red one, the colour of blood, reflecting up at him. He grabbed it in triumph. No one had ever found a red one before. The colour made him think of his mam’s rosary ring – it was gold with a deep red stone in the middle, and lots of gold bumps all around the outside. Each one was for a Hail Mary, and the big red stone at the front was for a Hail Mary, Glory Be and the Lord’s Prayer all at once. He spat on his discovery and rubbed it clean. Carefully, he pocketed it. His mam would love it.
He felt his collar yanked and a handful of wet sand trickle down his back. Turning, he discovered Lucy grinning at him.
‘Hey!’ he shouted. ‘What did you do that for?’
‘Got you!’ she taunted, doing a series of cartwheels. ‘Time’s up. How many did you get?’
He wriggled, trying to shake the sand out of his clothes. But he was laughing too now.
‘The sand is so cold! I’ll get you back for that, you wait and see. I got loads this time actually, more than you I bet. And I got a special blood crystal too.’
‘Let’s see. Show me, show me!’
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the handfuls of glass pebbles. There it was, the deep red gem. His booty. Lucy reached out to grab it.
‘Wow,’ she gasped, holding it up to the sky, where a pale sun was attempting to break through. ‘That’s amazing. Wow.’
‘Give it back! It’s for me mam.’
‘If you want it, you’ll have to come and get it,’ Lucy shouted, running off.
Instinctively he took off after her, knowing it was a race he would win. He picked up pace, leaping across the sand, his Start-rite school shoes leaving zig-zag tracks behind him. Then, he saw Lucy had stopped running. He squinted, trying to see what she was looking at, the low February sun confusing his vision. He reached her and stopped too. This was the furthest along the beach he’d ever been.
They were both panting as they gazed down at the word ‘sorry’ carved into the sand in front of them. A pile of folded clothes and some sensible black shoes lay next to the letters. Placed carefully on top of a red jumper was a gold rosary ring, with a ruby paternoster. It glinted up at them.
Grains of sand were still trickling down his back.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said, frowning as he turned his head towards the churning sea. ‘Mam can’t swim.’