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The sky had slipped from bold in its blueness to a softer pastel, its pink-tinged glow reflected in the limpid sea. The local fishermen were busy at the far end of the beach. Some men gathered the large gauzy fishing nets together in neat parcels, to be stowed for a few hours, others coiled ropes and one man sluiced away the debris of their work from the bottom of the boat. The women had come to meet them and they sorted through the day’s catch, throwing fish into baskets that briefly pulsed then fell still. Crows picked at the discarded fish carcasses and the stray dogs lay, licking their deformities.
The scene at the other end of the beach was entirely different. Families were clustered around the rocks – holiday-makers who wondered at the peace of the place even as they interrupted it with a chaos of children, buckets and spades and bags of belongings. The children lay strewn about on the sand. Some were grouchy now the excitement of dipping their toes in the sea had faded. Others were rubbing distractedly at their skin where it pricked with dried-out saltwater, their heads drooping with sleep. A few still scampered, squealing with the very last of their energy, faces glowing from the day’s burning sun. The adults had begun packing up the paraphernalia of parenthood, making ready to go. The moat of the afternoon’s sandcastle had been filled now and the towels drawn back out of the creeping water’s reach.
It was as if they had been woken from a spell by the swift disappearance of the sun, which had plummeted into the sea and lain there briefly, bleeding red light, before sinking out of sight. It was time to leave the beach to the mosquitoes and the crabs, and retreat to verandas lit by candles decorated with shells. Children would be stowed in bedrooms and parents would adjust their hearing – the day’s squeals and laughter giving way to the thrum of crickets and the brush of breezy palms.
But first they must gather everything together and leave their spot, running back and forth to the cars parked at the fringe of the beach and piling their baggage inside. No one minded whose flip-flops were whose, or which towels belonged to which villa; everyone gathered as many things as they could and carried them in precarious armfuls to the cars to be dusted of sand and sorted later. Birds wheeled above, clutching their catch and flying away.
After bags came children. Toddlers were carried to the cars with arms flung around necks and legs clamped onto hips. Someone did not have enough hands to manage the youngest – a baby sleeping in its carrycot. It sat perched on a rock like a bird’s nest, fringed with broken-off mussel shells and glowing green algae. The tide was coming in but they did not feel any urgency from the placid expanse of water, a picture-perfect postcard scene. They couldn’t know how it crept up quickly, cautiously at first, then bold.
There was only a minute, perhaps less, when all of the adults were loading the cars or rushing things to them. But the wave needed no more time than that. One single push, a strong swell and the carrycot was gently lifted from its perch. Shells were picked up too, and some small pieces of rubbish that had escaped attention.
As quickly as the water had swept up it drew back, revealing sand once more and a light sheen of water on the rock. And so when they saw it, they didn’t understand how the baby, left moored on a rock surrounded by sandy beach, should be bobbing gently out at sea on an innocent-looking wave.
The baby slept on as the waves whispered their lullaby.
Ruth Bennett lives in London. She’s a children’s fiction editor by day and an adult fiction writer by night.