Growing Up : “Debutante”

This short story,  continuing the theme of Growing Up, first represented earlier this year by “My Hero the Villain” was first published a long time ago in the Scottish literary magazine Calgacus, now defunct. It explores a pubescent youngster’s beginning to define herself in her own terms, outwith those of peer group or family, with some of the unexpected and unwelcome consequences of setting out on one’s own voyage of discovery….


The heavy stone which she had thrown, discus-fashion, sank into the viscous brown sludge, sending thick splutters on to the bank. She had been warned many times not to go near the canal; now she knew why. Falling into that slime would be a vile way to die.

Then she thought of the clear sea, the swoop of graceful birds, the long curve of white sand, the grassy dunes. She had to get there!

Until now she had always gone the safe way – driven in Father’s car to the far side of the beach, walked with him, returned with him…..until I go THIS way, the beach will never be my special place. It will never belong to me……

But I’ll have to cross the canal first…..apprehensively, she studied the fat chipped black pipe which ran from one bank to the other. She walked slowly towards it; the stink of the sludge made her retch. She shut her eyes and clenched her fists, screwing up courage.

She had planned this day for long enough…..when I am thirteen, I will make an expedition across the fields to the beach, all on my own. I will lie on the dunes and sunbathe, I will wade into the sea, watch the birds and explore the beach, all on my own…..

Quickly, shutting out thought, she tied her little bag of sandwiches, lemonade, towel and swimsuit on to her back; she rubbed the soles of her sand – shoes with her handkerchief to make sure they wouldn’t slip. The pipe was about twelve feet across, eighteen inches wide. She climbed on, taking a deep breath to avoid inhaling the stench of the sewage. She balanced very carefully, pretending that the pipe was a low bench in the school Gym, and started walking.

She was across. It had been easy. But her legs shook. There had been one or two moments when terror almost threw her off balance. She did not look back.

The morning was clear; coaxed by the warm sun, a gentle perfume distilled from the clover and forget-me-not and nameless little plants nestling in the turf under her feet began to mingle with the air. Butterflies, bees and flies buzzed and drifted round her; a light breeze made the yellow gorse flowers dance.

Not far ahead, the ground sloped up towards a low ridge; its sides were spiked with straggling whin and twining bramble bushes. At the top sagged the rusty remains of a fence; disdaining to use the teetering stile, she swung herself nimbly through a narrow gap between the lowest barbed wire strand and the sandy soil. Not much of a fence, she thought, noting the fading wisps of wool clinging to the wire; anything can get through now.

Beyond the ridge, the ground was a patchwork of springy turf, bogs, and oily stagnant pools. Cautiously she picked her way; she had heard grim stories of this deceptive, shifting sand leading to the estuary. Sheep were often lost in the dark here, sucked into the treacherous bogs, and last spring a tinker had vanished without trace. The thought made her shiver. Still, it was safe enough during the day.

She felt thirsty. Sitting down on a firm bank of turf, she drank lemonade and watched the insects in the pool beside her. There was a large fly, struggling helplessly, trapped in a globule of peaty oil floating on the surface. A water spider was paddling lazily around the edge. The fly caught its attention. The spider made straight for the drowning fly, grabbed it, hauled it out of the oily globule, dragged it still struggling towards the bank, and vanished into its lair. She watched, fascinated. A pond skater skimmed the surface. He was too big to fear the spider. He’s the boss around here, she thought.

Suddenly, another fly fell foul of a tiny oil slick. She watched in anticipation. Another water spider homed in and pounced. As the insects battled their way to the bank, she picked up a stone and dropped it, right on top of them. Victim and predator disappeared; the ripples destroyed the stagnant calm of the pool. She watched for a few moments and was overcome with desolation. Abruptly, she got up and walked on.

The breeze grew fresher and she could smell salt on the air. The ground ahead was firmer now; she moved into an easy stride, soon reaching the last fence to cross between her and the shore. Below the fence was a solid stone boathouse which had withstood tide and weather for over a hundred years. Half a mile down the shore lay the open sea.

The estuary had receded to a narrow ribbon of water, quietly waiting for high tide to give it back its eddies and currents. There was nothing but sand, scored by tiny channels of water, patterned by sand ribs, worm castings and the narrow footprints of gulls, between her and the village which straggled along the green hillside across the estuary.

It was hard to believe that this was the treacherous Mussel Ebb, with its unpredictable patches of sinking sand, where the tide came in so erratically, so deceptively, that you could find yourself cut off on a sandbar in moments. The Mussel Ebb had claimed many lives; even strong swimmers had lost battles with its powerful and insidious currents.

Just now it was tame; gulls picked idly in the channels, big smooth stones embedded in the sand were drying themselves languidly in the sun.

Lazily, she draped herself on the scrubby grass between boathouse and shore. She was hungry; bringing out the sandwiches and lemonade she ate, chuckling to herself……I wonder how Latin is going?…..Reaching for another sandwich, she took a deep breath to fill her lungs with sea air. A sweetish, sickening odour caught her throat. Decay.

Clutching her bag she stood up. Nearer the boathouse the smell was stronger. Nothing round the back. Round to the North side. Lying huddled against the wall was a bundle of dirty woolly rags; holding one hand over nose and mouth she crept nearer. The bundle was a decomposing sheep; close to it were the remains of a tiny lamb. She backed away, nauseated. She had seen dead sheep before; but the sight of the mauled corpse of such a tiny creature struck at her. There was nothing to be done.

She turned again towards the sea. She walked fast. The shoreline now seemed deserted and lifeless. The image of the lamb’s congealed and bloody eye sockets infected her vision. She noticed only old, pitted bones of sheep and dead birds.

The sound of the sea grew closer. She could see the dunes now, and the stiff marram grass leaning over in the light breeze. The terns’ cries reached her, faintly.

The terns! She thought of them with fascination and fear. During the nesting season they patrolled the beach, endlessly vigilant. Dogs, children, adults; the terns made vicious swoops on all who threatened their young. She would have to face their protective wrath.

Wrathful Terns....
Wrathful Terns...

artwork by Pamela J. Blair…

Her father had often assured her that these birds only threatened; they never actually attacked. But she could never quite believe him. She had dreamed once that a tern pecked a hole in the top of her head. Her brains, bloody mush, spurted out……but they don’t nest at this end…I’ll worry about them later……

She loved the texture of the sand in the dunes. It was warm, welcoming; a few gentle wriggles were enough to mould it into a perfect hollow. Lying on her back, eyes shut in the strong midday sunlight, she stretched her body taut, then slowly relaxed and lay limp. She felt her body dissolve into the sand; her mind dissolved into fantasy.

…..She was the only survivor of a ship wreck, strolling along miles of golden sand on a desert island, her hair bleaching, hanging wild down her back and her naked skin brown and smooth and salty with sea water…..she was a Pharaoh’s wife in ancient Egypt, rowed down the Nile in a royal galley with slaves straining at the oars, watching men hauling huge stone blocks from the shore for the Pyramids, while overseers stood by with whips……she was an Inca woman of noble birth, bound and calm, chosen as a sacrifice to the mighty Sun God……

Hunger pangs at last called her back. She ate and drank leisurely, enjoying her solitude. But her body puzzled her; a pulsing inner warmth was slowly rising, causing her to long for something whose nature she could not identify. Impulsively, she stood up and threw off her shorts and shirt. She was naked in the powerful eye of the sun.

Crossing her arms, she hugged her shoulders; then she moved her hands slowly, hesitantly down the front of her body. Smooth, warm skin over jutting ribs, tight little stomach and prominent hip bones. She looked down. In the sun’s glare she saw that the fleshy delta between belly and thighs was no longer smooth but fuzzed with downy hairs.

She stood for a moment, hands resting on thighs, studying, wondering. Then she shook herself, as if jerking out of a trance, and lifted up her bag. Tugging out her swimsuit she quickly put it on. She leapt out of her hollow, ran over the top of the dunes, careless of the tough marram plucking at her legs and stabbing her feet, down the shifting sandy slope to the beach.

The tide was still quite far out. She ran, faster and faster; through the bank of shells, across the high tide mark strewn with seaweed. Her feet smacked the hard wet sand.

She hit the shallow water at full speed; ran on, gasping and shuddering as a splashing fountain rained, icy, on her skin. Thigh-deep, she struck out and swam in the calm sea.

She exhausted herself with swimming; near the shallow again, she turned and floated on her back, limp as a strand on bladder-wrack. The motion of the incoming tide soon bore her shorewards, depositing her gently on the sand.

The sea had soothed her. Calm, untroubled, at peace, her body felt as clear and clean as the gently rising waters. Unhurriedly, trailing her toes across the sand ribs, she strolled back up the sand ribs, she strolled back up the beach; the water trickling down her body quickly dried salty on her skin in the day’s heat.

Dressed now, she stood looking over the dunes to the beach which curved along the bay into a rocky cove. Above the rocks, its thin soil struggling silently with the sea’s erosion of the privacy of those resting there, was an old ruined chapel and churchyard. On a clear bright day like this it didn’t seem far. But it was a walk of at least two miles from where she stood. The chapel dated back to the fifteenth century; in it rested the bones of the earliest MacLeod chiefs. At night, so it was said, you could see the eyes of the dead shining in the churchyard. She had never visited it alone.

The terns’ nesting grounds began half way along, in a sheltered dip below the dunes. She watched them; they wheeled and dived ceaselessly over the sea…..I wonder if they ever sleep?…..smiling at the thought, she stepped down the slope to the beach, and began to follow the high tide mark.

As she walked, eyes combing the miscellany of objects cast up by the sea, she remembered the discovery she had always longed to make; two summers ago, a transparent green bottle with paper inside it, the ink running slightly. Wild with excitement, she had run yelling to her father. He opened the bottle. She could still recall her bitter disappointment. It contained religious pamphlets from Ireland.

Here, another bottle. Empty, with a label on it in a foreign language. Lots of seaweed. She stamped on it, bursting the small dry bladders with satisfying pops. Tiny, exquisite pastel-coloured shells. A rusty can. She remembered it from last summer when she had cut her foot on its jagged lid. A dead seagull, one wing still half-raised in its last struggles.

She always delighted in the little crab skeletons which, somehow, remained intact. And the glass shapes; once, bits of broken bottles – now, worn utterly smooth by the action of countless tides. A fish box – ‘Leiper, Aberdeen’. A small sausage-shaped balloon; sagged, rubbery and clammy to the touch…..wonder what that was for?…..

Absorbed, she forgot about the terns until they suddenly began their attack. Screech, swoop and dive…screech, swoop and dive! She felt panic rising, but fought it down. Recalled her father’s words…..Don’t worry! They wont attack you…they’re bluffing…..But alone on a bare beach with the sun’s warmth ebbing and the tide rising and these fierce creatures threatening her, she felt small and unprotected. She tried waving her arms and shouting, but they only grew louder.

Despite her alarm, there was a tight knot of stubbornness in her…..I’m not giving up the rest of my day for them!…..Crouching low, she ran for the protection of the dunes, huddling down in the steep curve between dunes and beach. It worked. The terns, mollified, flew away to the sea’s edge. She raised her head cautiously and watched them.

They were swooping low; she thought she noticed something moving. Peering carefully, she gasped with delight. No wonder they had been so insistent! The beach below her was dotted with wobbly little bundles of fluff tottering towards the sea. The baby terns were hatching! Not daring to move, she watched the parents shepherding their young.

After some time she grew bold; longing to see the chicks more clearly she began to edge, still crouching, towards the sea. As she crept her hand touched something warm and smooth lying in a hollow in the sand. Unthinkingly, she picked it up and squeezed it. It broke in her hand and thin clear liquid dripped out of it. She stared at her hand; sliding into her cupped palm from a ruin of shattered eggshell, blood and jelly came a half-formed tern. She screamed and threw the mess down; it spattered on the sand.

She rubbed and twisted her hand convulsively in the dry sand, over and over again. She stood up then and wiped it hard on her shirt.

Standing awkwardly, tears spilling down her face, she stared across the beach, her eyes drawn to the chapel above the rocks. The air was growing chilly; she shuddered at its touch.

She could not stay in this alien place. Her gaze shifted from the chapel to the chicks, to the mothering birds, to the incoming tide. Bending down slowly she picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder.
The sun was moving westward, the light fading. Turning on her back on the screeching terns and the looming sea, she climbed wearily over the dunes to begin the long walk home.

2600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2009
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Short story: “My hero the villain”

I realised recently that this award-winning short story has been quietly lurking in the Growing Up page since summer 2008, never having been posted on the Weblog.

Here it is!

Those of a slightly squeamish disposition might be advised to read the first section or two of ‘ My hero the villian’ with their eyes closed – remember “Lord of the Flies?” and how savage children can be ? Those who are over fifty will be reminded of some of the sexist attitudes to girls which prevailed in the middle decades of the last century ! And all of us who have ever been children will remember that one of the sad but necessary entrance fees to the adult world is loss of innocence….

'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding
'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding



Archie’s mother was out. The radio was on, blaring out Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, his latest hit. I hate it. Archie says it’s because I’m  too young to know heartbreak; he is twelve, but I’m only nine, and a girl. I was suggesting digging to Australia during our holidays. He was sitting with his feet up on the kitchen table, cutting lumps off a slab of butter, rolling each lump in sugar, tossing it in the air and trying to catch it in his mouth. Swinging his feet down, he nodded.

“Yeah, that’s a great idea.” He made for the door. “Come on! We’d better pick a good site before it gets dark.” It was two o’clock in the afternoon. I followed him, gratefully. Out the kitchen door we hurried, down the concrete path, not even stopping to hurdle the dustbins. We jumped over the wire netting fence separating the vegetable patch from the jungle of weeds and willows where his dad, a budgie breeder, laid dead birds to rest.

What a good time we’d had in the budgies’ graveyard last summer holidays! Unfortunately, my father saw us shooting arrows at dead budgies hanging from the clothesline. Fathers have a habit of putting a stop to fun. We were banned from the bottom of the garden for the rest of the summer. I still don’t see what all the fuss was about….they couldn’t FEEL anything….

“Hey Deirdre!” Archie had vanished into the weeds. “How about here?” I followed his voice, picking my way through the nettles. He was sitting on a sheet of rusty corrugated iron, pulling the wings off a butterfly.

“This is perfect,” he said, throwing bits of butterfly over his shoulder for luck. “Sit down here.” I sat down, carefully. “Now look at the house.”

“I can’t see the house from here, Archie.”

“Exactly!” He grinned at me. “You’re slow on the uptake! If you can’t see them……”

“They can’t see us!” I was delighted. “When will we start?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Archie said. “I know a place where I can get a couple of spades.”

“I haven’t seen any spades, Archie.”

“Huh…. girls never notice anything.” Hurt, I said nothing.

“OK, I’ll tell you. But keep it a secret?” I nodded. “See that old air raid shelter, across the cornfield ?”


“The spades are hidden inside, away in a corner among some nettles. I’ll sneak them up here later on today.”

“How did you find them? ”

He winked,  rubbing what was left of the butterfly into powder between his palms.  “I’m smart,” he said. “Hadn’t you noticed?”


Digging that hole was hard work. We had two bottles of lemonade from our larder, and a packet of biscuits stolen by Archie from the shop across the road.

“My geography teacher said that if you started digging from Scotland you’d get to Australia if you kept going long enough” I said to Archie, looking at the growing pile of earth. “D’you think that’s true?”

“Course it is” he replied,  taking a long swallow of lemonade. “If David Livingstone could do it, why can’t we?”

“But ….” I said puzzled. “But he DIDN’T ….”

“Oh shut up!” Archie said impatiently. “Let’s get on with it.” We worked all day, stopping only to go home for our dinner.

“Where on earth have you been?” asked my mother. “You’re filthy!”

“Oh–nowhere. Just out playing.”

“I wish you’d be more like a girl,” she sighed. “You wouldn’t get so dirty.”

“Can I have some more mince, please?” I asked. I had eaten the two hills, the roads and there was no gravy left for the river. She gave me some. My mother would like it if I wore a skirt and a ribbon in my hair. But I don’t like girls. They’re boring.


“What are we going to do with these worms, Archie?” We were digging up the longest, fattest worms I had ever seen.

“Seems a pity to waste them, doesn’t it?” he said, scratching his head and thinking very hard.

“I know! Just you wait here.” He went off to the shed and came back with a hammer and some nails. “Right, pick up a few and bring them over here.” He walked towards the willow trees. I had never picked up a worm in my life. Closing my eyes and trying to think of something else, I collected about ten of them. They were slimy and clammy and they squirmed in my hand.

“We’ll have a laugh here,” said Archie. “Hand me one at a time.” I watched him as he nailed them to the trees. Wriggling and jumping, they oozed slime and worm blood. Archie grinned at me. “They don’t take long to die.” Feeling sick and dizzy,  I forced myself to watch. At last they just hung there, limp.

“That’s my good deed for the day,” Archie said. I looked at him, trying not to show my feelings. “Well” he said. “The birds. I’ve given them their dinner.” I couldn’t say a word. Archie picked up his spade. “Come on, Deirdre. We’ve a lot of digging to do.”


It was Saturday morning. I was lying in bed eating a bacon sandwich, and drinking the  tea my mother had brought me. I was thinking about the hole; it was getting deep. What would we do about the water?

“Deirdre!” Oh blast ….she would be wanting me to go into town.We’d be held up with the digging. “Deirdre! Come and see your uncle Angus – he’ll be off in a minute.” That was different. I liked my uncle Angus a lot. He always looked as if he was just about to have an adventure. I didn’t know what his job was, but I had overheard him talking to my father. It was something to do with nets and seals and the police. Jumping out of bed, I pulled on my jeans and a jersey, and ran downstairs.

There he was, leaning against the kitchen sink, rolling a cigarette. My mother glared at me. “You scruffy little tinker! Why haven’t you brushed your hair?”

“Oh, Anna, leave the girl alone!” said uncle Angus, lighting his cigarette and winking at me. “She’s a free spirit.” He grinned. “Am I right, miss?”

“Of course,” said I, not looking at my mother. It was worth the row later. I wanted him to like me.

“Come here!” he said. “Shut your eyes and hold out your hands.” I obeyed him. “Right! Open your eyes.”

I could hardly believe what I saw. Four half crowns! Ten whole shillings! It wasn’t even

Xmas or my birthday. I stared at him, not knowing what to say.

“Angus!” My mother sounded shocked. “She gets one shilling a week. That’s quite enough for a child her age.”

“Rubbish, woman” replied uncle Angus. “We all deserve a wee treat once in a while.” He turned to me. “Right–no banks, no savings, nothing sensible. Go straight out and spend the lot today on whatever you fancy. O.K.?”

“O.K.” I didn’t say anything else, just winked at him. He winked back. My mother glared at me as I made for the door.

“Be back here in time for your dinner!” she called. I stopped .

“What’s for dinner, then?” Grinning, uncle Angus  pointed to the draining board.There lay two huge silvery salmon.

“Away you go” he said. “See you the next time.”


Out of sight of our house, I sat on a low wall. I needed to think.

Archie would be working on the hole. He would be so angry if I said I was going down town. He thought I was less stupid than most girls. I didn’t want to make him mad. But I loved having all this money.  If I didn’t spend it today it might fall down a drain.

I looked at the four half crowns. One was very new and glinted in the sun. Archie could have a share! I could give him a shilling…. or even one and six. But I knew Archie. He wouldn’t be happy. I put two half crowns on the wall, then the other two, whilst making up my mind. Half shares each! That would please him, wouldn’t it?

Archie was busy. He straightened up when he heard me coming. “Where have you been, you lazy little runt?” He was really mad. Just wait till I told him!

“I’m going down town this morning, Archie,” I said. “Are you coming with me?”

“Down town? With all this work to do? Clear off. Go yourself.” He turned his back and carried on digging.

“Look what I’ve got, Archie,” I said, taking the half crowns out of my pocket. “I got a present today.”

“Very nice, I’m sure,” he said in a nasty voice. “Some of us aren’t so lucky. Away and spend it, then.”

“You can have a share.”

He turned round, very quickly. “How much?”

“Half.” He was out of that hole like a shot!

“Deirdre, you’re a real pal,” he said, giving me a big smile. “You’re the best pal I ever had.” He wiped his hands on his jeans and grabbed my arm. “Come on, let’s go. Will we walk or take a bus?”

I felt really happy. “Let’s walk,” I replied. “It’s such a lovely day.”


What a time we had! We got a big ice cream each from Cabrelli’s. In Woolies, we bought a matchbox car each, and new pencils with rubbers on the end. We bought marbles and plasticine. Archie bought a water pistol; I bought a lead cowboy whose hat and gun clipped on and off. Archie called me a swot when I got a bottle of ink for my new fountain pen. We were thrown out when he frightened one of the assistants with his new plastic jumping frog; but the money was mostly gone, so it didn’t matter.

We stopped at the corner sweet shop to spend our last few pennies on sherbet fountains and lucky potatoes, eating them on the way home. I should have got a Five Boys, I thought; my favourite chocolate, you could bite the Boys’ faces off one by one, leaving the smiling one to last. But I had no money left.

Fry's Five Boys chocolate - once the most famous confectionery bar in the world
Fry's Five Boys chocolate - once the most famous confectionery bar in the world

As we walked, we tried to decide what to do about the water coming in the hole.

“It’s getting serious,” Archie said. “I keep getting wet feet, and I’m running out of stories to tell my mother.”

“Perhaps we could use a tin can as a bailer, like my father does in his boat?”

“Trouble with that,” Archie replied, “is that the water would still come in, and we’d spend half the time bailing it out.”

“True enough.”

We walked quietly for a bit, thinking. A short way from his house, Archie brought a bar of Five Boys out of his pocket. Removing the wrapper, he began to bite the Boys off one by one.

“Where did you get that?” I asked. “I thought we’d spent all the money.”

“In Woolies,” he replied. “When you were getting your ink.” There were only two Boys left.

“Can I have one?” I asked. “The smiling Boy at the end?”

“No. You can’t. I bought it with my money, not yours.” I watched him slowly biting into the smiling Boy, chewing it and swallowing it. He licked his lips. “MMM. That was nice.”

Suddenly I felt sick. “Must get home for my dinner” I mumbled, not looking at him. As we reached his gate I started to walk really fast.

“Cheerio, then,” he said. “See you this afternoon.” I didn’t answer.


That night I dreamed about Archie. He was in the hole, digging.The water began to rise. It rose very quickly.The hole was too deep for him to get out. He started screaming, and calling to me for help. He couldn’t swim. I did nothing and said nothing; just sat and watched until the surface of the water was calm.

(winner of a Highly Commended  award in the Jo Cowell international short story competition UK Autumn 04)

2200 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page