Dear Pink Sparkly Jelly Shoes,
The night before I first laid eyes on you I was having trouble sleeping. It was August and as usual we had come to stay in Thorrington, Essex, in a house owned by my Dad’s cousin. I say ‘as usual’ as if I found it a bore but that was not true: I lived for our one and only annual holiday that always straddled my birthday. Two weeks staying in a detached house in the countryside within a short drive of the coast was pure heaven for a South-London, nature loving, council estate kid like me.
That night I lay awake feeling unnerved by the silence and darkness. In my bedroom at home the streetlights glared in through the cracks in my curtains and sounds ebbed and flowed, overlapping and interweaving as the evening progressed: neighbours arguing, car doors slamming, the girls next-door on their CB radios talking dirty to truck drivers, dogs barking, cats fighting, the tired hiss of the bus doors opening and closing, the muffled sound of canned laughter and tinny applause from the TV, and the hourly scrape of the frosted glass of the serving hatch being pulled back as my Mum handed my Dad his cup of tea.
This house by contrast stood so silent on its foundations that I began to feel that I might be totally alone in the universe, all other life gone in a flash without my knowing. Eventually the thought became so dreadfully real I ran down to my Mum, braving the dark of the stairs and crossing myself as I stood on the coffin step where the stairs turned a corner. As she bought me back to bed she said:
“Try and think of something nice Sare. When I was scared in bed at your age I used to always think of ice-creams, seasides and Elvis. Think of the seaside tomorrow, we’ll get you some new jelly shoes.”
That worked the trick. In the effort to push those lonely, expansive images from my thoughts, you were conceived: jelly shoes doused in glitter, a thousand galaxies suspended in candy floss pink transparent plastic. There would be a silver buckle and a cute pattern, maybe criss cross design, over my toes. Other children would point and gasp as I passed by, in awe of your splendidness.
The next day, after packing and repacking our old blue, rusty VW caravan, we chugged off to the Essex coast. Once we had endured the usual trauma of car parks, height restrictions and remembering to display the blue badge and set it to the right time, we grabbed our beach gear and walked towards the sea through the streets lined with tourist shops. I was eventually led into a vast emporium of tacky delights and offered a series of mediocre beach shoes to try on. I looked at my Mum with pleading eyes that said ‘please God no, don’t make me’. My Dad, who after my third shoe dismissal was about to erupt in a shower of impatience and boredom, started to say to my Mum:
“For God’s sake woman just buy her those…”
That was when I saw you. You were up high in a premier spot with a few admiring girls of my age pulling on their mothers’ sleeves and pointing up. You were exactly how I imagined. Pure perfection.
You were however twice the amount my Mum had expected to pay and she protested. I told her to use the birthday money my aunts had given me the week before and, correctly sensing this was an argument she would not win, asked the lady if they had my size in stock. They did, last ones. I didn’t even bother with a box. You were straight on my feet and I danced out of that shop and skipped all the way down to the beach holding my Mum’s hand, my Dad grumbling and voicing his disapproval as he pushed my older brother Andrew in his wheelchair behind us.
I tried you out over the pebbles: you cushioned my feet from the rough and sharp edges. I paddled and splashed in the rock pools: you did not slip off. I was in love! After lunch, when my parents had grown tired of making sandcastles or having their feet buried in the sand, I was sent off to ‘make friends’ while my older brother put on his bright yellow Sony walkman and listened to a recording of Top of the Pops that my Dad had taped off the TV, flapping his hands together in pure delight at the countdowns.
I heaved myself reluctantly off of the blanket and started the dance — the one that most children instinctively know the steps to without being taught. The dance is employed when you don’t have the guts to walk straight up to a group of strange children and ask: “Can I play?” It begins by casually circling an established group, trying not to look too interested in what they are doing but alert for a way to involve yourself. Can you grab their errant frisbee, return it and be invited to join; happen to be holding the perfect shell they are looking for to finish their sandcastle; pass by just when the kite goes down and offer to launch it back up into the air while they run along tugging the string?
That day however I had no easy takers, no one took my hand and pulled me into play. I did not really care. I never really cared, but felt I’d disappoint my parents if they could not look up, nudge each other and grab the old polaroid camera to capture their daughter playing happily with a group of kids she had just met. Besides I liked the praise I received:
“You are such a sociable, friendly girl, we can take you anywhere.”
Today I had not tried too hard, I just wanted to be alone with you. I decided to deliberately put some distance between myself and my parents, told them I was joining some kids by the rock pools but double backed on myself, walking behind their plot to head out down to the quieter bit of beach by the ageing nudists, basking in the sun like Californian sea lions.
You sparkled and dazzled as I walked along the sand, a child Cinderella transformed, indulging in the feeling of the pliable warm plastic on the soles of my feet. I started walking out to meet the incoming tide, splashing and kicking up the sea water so it fell in rainbow drops, watching the odd crab dive under a rock and the spirals of the lugworms rise up as they buried into the sand.
I had been walking for what felt like ages when suddenly my foot submerged in a patch of brown, sludgy sand. It had taken me by such surprise that I had lost my balance and planted my other foot straight down next to it and that had sank too. I tried and tried to pull either foot loose but could not. My mind raced to the horse in The Never Ending Story’s swamp of despair or Flash Gordon’s blond mop disappearing beneath the bog’s surface. Oh no! My fate was to sink and be buried under the waves of the incoming tide. I tried not to panic and wracked my brain for remembered advice from the movies. Was it:
“Don’t give up keep moving, you’ve got to keep trying.”
“Stay still don’t struggle”.
I burst into tears and wailed for my Mum and Dad. I couldn’t fully turn around to see them and in my terror realised I could not see them at all, just numerous small spots on the shore behind the same identical Neapolitan striped windbreakers.
I stayed there stuck for what felt like hours (though was probably only half an hour) the tide growing ever closer and my throat sore from screaming.
A deep voice suddenly boomed out my name I and saw my Dad, my hero, walking towards me. Without saying anything, he grabbed me under my arms and pulled me free but…oh horror! You had slipped off my feet with the force and I saw the glint of your silver buckle as you slipped slowly away under the shallow water into the dark sand. I screamed again and begged my Dad to help me dig you out. I don’t remember exactly what was said but something involving me not being such a bloody idiot and asking why could I never just do as I was told? He put me over his shoulder and walked me back to shore, while I lay limp, bare-footed and weeping inconsolably.
That night, I wrote a tear-stained letter to the King of Germany which I asked my Mum to post for me in the morning. In the letter I requested that if he, the king, found my shoes on the beach, would he please return them to me. I had enclosed my address and felt certain that as king his coffers would cover the cost of postage. That there was no King of Germany in 1986 and neither was Germany directly across the sea from us, were minor details. Hearing tales of how the Germans were trying to come across the sea during the War had led to my assumption that they were the next stop across the blue horizon from Essex. I also assumed everyone had a King or a Queen in charge of their country. Why I thought any King would be beach combing remains a mystery locked in my childhood brain to which I have no current access.
Years later as a teenager, I would be plagued by recurring nightmares of tidal waves. In these night terrors, my family and I would be sat on an Essex coastline with the familiar blanket and windbreaker, enjoying the sunny day, when suddenly out on the horizon we would see a huge wall of water advancing towards us, blocking out the sun. People would start running and screaming and either myself or one of my parents would manhandle my brother into his wheelchair and start trying to push him across the stones, while the other two of us pulled as the wheels jammed with pebbles. It was a terrifying ordeal but we would always get there in the end making it safely to the top of the hill with crowds of other people, where in my dream I knew we would be safe.
Always, just at the last moment I would make a run for it back down to the beach into the shadow of the advancing waves, my parents screaming my name.
I did it to get you.
I would dart through the abandoned picnic blankets, windbreakers and smouldering barbecues, and grab you where you floated in the shallows, just as the mighty wave arched over me. I would look up and see the beautiful crystalline water, poised like a rippling racehorse recoiling before a gallop, watching iridescent fish and slippery seaweed fronds suspended in the rainbow prism of water that stretched down the coastline. I’d be frozen in awe, locked in a moment of near perfect silence, except for the occasional drip of water onto the pebbles on the ocean floor. In that moment, all of nature stood still, caught in that place between the inhale and exhale. Then all I would hear was the thunderous roar of the sky falling in.