“CCTV request Wellington Place. Corner, opposite McDonalds.” The policeman spoke into his radio, ignoring a stream of abuse from the irate busker.
“You’re part of the system of oppression, man… class traitor.”
The musician then began to berate the officer’s partner, who was seated on a wall next to the underpass. Unaffected by this tirade, the police officer stared right through the dreadlocked man, deflecting the words with seasoned indifference.
Susan skirted round the scene of mayhem and headed for the mosaic adorned tunnel which led to the seafront. The briny air mingled in her nostrils with the scent of chip fat and caramelised sugar. She was drawn by the tawdry spangle of seaside tat displayed outside the nearest gift shop. Picking her way past shimmering windmills, bright plastic buckets and spades, she made a beeline for the neat rows of sticks of rock inside. Selecting a pink one from the display of carnival confectionary, Susan sniffed its peppermint perfume through the plastic wrapper. She handed over her change, and then clutching a paper bag, headed out of the door and towards the beach.
Pebbles crunched under her feet, and cascaded in stony avalanches, as she made her way down the slope towards the sea. She recalled climbing on the barnacle rough groynes the last time she was here, balancing like a gymnast on the dark wooden beams. The recollection soured as she thought of later and her mum’s mounting panic mixed with anger. Mum, her eyes wild and fists tight by her side, and Dad with his hands clasped on top of his balding head. Pacing, searching, their eyes scanning up and down the beach and then out to sea.
“She can’t have gone far – she’s left her shoes.”
“Did she go with the other girls?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?!”
Mum’s heated interrogation and Dad’s vague answers became increasingly desperate, as they realised with painful certainty that Katie had vanished from the beach.
Susan remembered her sister’s shoes, red jelly beans, her own much smaller and see-through pink. She loved them, but never saw them again after the holiday. She had been too little to feel much then and had continued her game of washing pebbles in her castellated bucket, admiring their slick gleam and the glinting seams of white quartz.
Discomposed by her memories, Susan reached down and retrieved a stone. It was smooth and comforting. She enveloped it in her hand, turning it from cool to warm, then stashed it in the pocket of her shorts and headed back up the beach towards the parade.
It was the lunchtime rush at The Ambassador. Waitresses shouted orders and darted back and forth with trays of steaming fish and chips. Families of holidaymakers were crammed behind sticky tables: a jumbled crush of mums, dads, drooling infants and indifferent teenagers. Susan made her way past acres of sunburned flesh and tattoos, noticing with a pang of nostalgia, the children in their best holiday outfits.
At least they’ve got a window seat, she thought, spotting Mike and the girls hemmed in at a table in the far corner. She slumped into the seat her husband had saved for her, forcing a smile at Kate opposite and giving little Carrie’s hand a gentle squeeze.
“How’d it go, love?” Mike asked, briefly resting his hand on hers.
“It helped me to remember… but it didn’t bring her back.”
She sighed and smiled weakly, then picked up a menu from the table.
“Fish and chips for me – how about you, Kate?” she asked. “Here you can have this afterwards.”
Susan passed the stick of rock across the table. She had been carrying it rolled up in a copy of the Big Issue. As she’d walked past an amusement arcade full of chiming, flashing fruit machines, she’d spotted the vendor and his Staffordshire bull terrier, standing in their pitch next to a wheelie bin. The Staffy was wearing a pink bandana around his stocky neck and the seller had endeared her with his poetic sales pitch, rhyming “sky is blue” with “Big Issue”.
They ordered their food and Susan flicked through the magazine absent mindedly while they waited. She came to the Missing Persons section at the back and her heart wrenched at the photographs of lost people; their dated hairstyles, indicating without words, that they had been gone for years. She didn’t have to imagine their families’ loss. She thought of her mum’s eyes and how they’d kept that haunted look since: as though they were permanently scanning the horizon for signs of her sister. She glanced up from the page, but the view across the seafront was a blur now, obscured by tears.
Later, they headed back towards the train station – Carrie asleep in her buggy, Katie carrying the misshapen cuddly toy that Mike had won for her on the teddy picker. Susan spotted the angry busker again, his black guitar case spread out in front of him, to catch the loose change of passers-by. He was lecturing his audience of two children, a girl and boy, in their brand new summer clothes: “We’re all stardust. From the dust you came and to dust you shall return…” And they stared blankly at him, as they licked their ice cream cornets and waited for a song.