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